Old Testament Laws: The Sabbath: Hebrews 4:9 and Other Questions
Does Hebrews 4:9 command Christians to keep the Sabbath?
The epistle to the Hebrews may have been written to Jewish believers who were still participating in the customs of Judaism. The epistle explains that the old covenant is obsolete and its regulations have been set aside. When the word sabbatismos is used in 4:9, it is not trying to affirm an old covenant law.
Throughout the epistle, the Hebrew believers are admonished that Jesus is much, much better than anything the old covenant had. Jesus Christ is the main focus of the epistle. Tithing is mentioned, for example, only because it shows the superiority of Christ over the Levitical priests. Sabbatismos is also mentioned, not as a point in itself, but because it illustrates something about the superiority of faith in Christ.
Jesus is better than angels, better than Moses, better than Aaron, better than all the rituals. He has superseded them all, fulfilling the spiritual truths that they pictured, rendering their physical performance unnecessary. Hebrews 4:9 does not command the continuation of an old covenant practice.
Articles About the Sabbath
Let us begin our analysis in Hebrews 3: “Fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess…. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses” (verses 1, 3). The epistle then quotes from Psalm 95, reminding the Hebrews that their ancestors had hardened their hearts and been faithless and disobedient under Moses’ leadership.
Do not harden your hearts, the epistle exhorts, echoing the point that had been made in Hebrews 2:1-3. The Hebrew Christians were apparently being tempted to go back toward Judaism, and the epistle exhorts them to be faithful to the superiority of Jesus Christ. Listen to what Jesus says (1:2; 2:1). Look to him, not to Moses, as our authority in faith and practice. Look to him as our High Priest in heaven, not to the Levitical priests in the temple, which are only shadows and copies of spiritual truth (8:1-5; 10:1).
Do not turn away from the living God, the epistle exhorts (3:12). Hold your faith in Christ firmly to the end (3:14). Do not harden your hearts (3:15). We cannot please God if we do not have faith (3:19; 11:6).
The epistle draws an analogy between the Israelites entering the promised land and Christians entering the better promise of the new covenant. This analogy is again designed to show the superiority of Christ. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they sent spies into Canaan to see the land that the Lord would be giving them. However, most of the Israelite spies were afraid of the Canaanites, and most of the Israelites believed the spies instead of God. God therefore declared that they, since they lacked faith and would not obey his order to invade Canaan, would not enter the promised land: “They shall never enter my rest” (Numbers 14:26-29; Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 3:11). In this psalm, “rest” was a metaphor for the old covenant promise, the land of Canaan.
The next generation of Israelites entered the promised land under Joshua’s leadership. Nevertheless, even after they entered the promised land, God continued to warn them, in the psalm, not to harden their hearts lest they fail to enter God’s rest. So the psalm was pointing toward a future rest (4:8). The promised land had been a physical type or foreshadow of a spiritual rest that the Israelites had not yet entered.
The epistle to the Hebrews picks up the message and continues it: Do not harden your hearts, and do not reject the teaching of Jesus. Do not become unbelieving and disobedient, but continue trusting in Jesus and obey him.
Christians have been given the new covenant, with its better, spiritual promises. They participate in this new covenant through faith in Jesus Christ. They enter God’s rest, his promise, by their faith in Jesus Christ. “Now we who have believed enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:3) — and that is the “rest” that the psalmist was talking about (verse 3b). Now, because we have entered God’s rest, we must be “careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it” (verse 1).
The spiritual rest that the psalmist had spoken of, the rest that God wants us to enter, has arrived in Jesus Christ. And the way people might fall short is by abandoning their faith in Jesus Christ. We must be careful that we do not lose faith and lose the rest that we have already entered.
In Christ, we have rest. He has freed us from the old covenant, which was a yoke too difficult to bear (Acts 15:10), and he has given us a new covenant, which is a yoke that is so much easier to bear that it is called a “rest” (Matthew 11:28-30). When we are in Christ, we are in spiritual rest. We have begun to experience the better promises of God.
God exhorts people to enter his rest — and the place that Scripture talks about God resting is on the seventh day of creation (Hebrews 4:4). We are invited to enter God’s end-of-creation rest by believing in the Son of God. By faith, we have joined with God in his rest. By faith, we have become new creations, created anew. We have been brought into the kingdom of God.
Our re-creation is not yet complete, but we have entered his rest. We have been reconciled and have fellowship with God through our High Priest, just as Adam and Eve had fellowship with God before they sinned. By faith in Christ, we enter God’s rest, as predicted by the psalmist.
We have entered into God’s katapausin rest, the same type of rest that he had on the very first seventh day.1 “Anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his” (4:10). This is far more significant than resting one day a week, because the epistle has already noted that God’s “work has been finished since the creation of the world” (4:3). God’s rest is an enduring rest, and the believer’s rest is, too.
As long as we have faith in Christ, no matter what day of the week it is, we have entered God’s rest and we are resting from our own work. Our own work cannot save us, but we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. We enter God’s rest permanently through faith in Christ.
“There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest [sabbatismos] for the people of God” (4:9). The writer is using a different word, but he is not referring to a different rest. Both words are used as metaphors for salvation. As can be seen by the word “then” or “therefore,” it is the same rest that is mentioned in verse 8 — the “rest” of salvation.2
The writer of Hebrews is using the words for rest as synonyms, one alluding to the creation rest and the other alluding to its weekly commemoration, but both referring to the same rest that Christians are to try to enter. It is the salvation rest that remains for Christians to enter and to be careful not to fall short of through unbelief. We are exhorted to enter this rest through faith (verses 11, 3).
Let us paraphrase the passage: God promised a rest, but the first Israelites did not enter it because of unbelief and disobedience. Joshua brought them into the land, but the Israelites were still being exhorted to enter the promised rest. It was still future. Therefore, since there is still a promise of rest, we must be careful that we do not fall short of it. We who have faith in Christ enter the promised rest, which is called God’s rest.
God rested at the end of creation, so this is the divine rest, the supernatural rest, the spiritual promise that believers enter. Although some people fell short of the promise, it still remains that some will enter it. That’s why the psalmist was still exhorting people to hear God’s voice and obey him.
If Joshua had fulfilled the promise, God would not have inspired the psalmist to continue exhorting people about the promised rest. Joshua’s entry into the promised land was symbolic of a spiritual entry into a spiritual promise, a spiritual rest. The psalmist was speaking about another day, a day in which people could enter the promise. Therefore, there continues to be a spiritual rest for the people of God, because anyone who enters God’s spiritual rest is able to cease from work, just as God ceased from his creative works. Therefore, we should strive to enter this spiritual promise, and not fall away through disobedience.
Why does the writer use the word sabbatismos? It clearly refers to the weekly Sabbath, but it is being used figuratively. The author is telling us that this spiritual rest is what the weekly Sabbath had pictured all along. The Sabbath was not only a reminder of the end-of-creation rest and the Exodus, it also looked forward, prefiguring something, as a predictive shadow of a coming reality, our spiritual rest. We enter God’s rest by faith in Christ (verse 3), and by doing so, we enter the rest that God entered when he completed his creation (verse 3b-4).
Our salvation rest is a Sabbath-rest, a fulfillment of the spiritual meaning of the Sabbath. If the author wanted to talk about the Sabbath day, he could have used the word for Sabbath. If he wanted to talk about keeping a law, he could have said that, too. But he did not use those words because he is not talking about the Sabbath day itself.
He is not saying whether it is necessary or unnecessary — he is not dealing with that issue. Rather, he is saying that the spiritual promise is a Sabbath-rest. Salvation is pictured by the Sabbath. Whether the Sabbath should continue to be kept as a weekly picture is not being discussed. The author is referring to salvation, the spiritual promised rest. He speaks of only one predicted Sabbath-rest, not a weekly picture of it. He is speaking figuratively of the kingdom of God. We enter our spiritual rest by faith in Christ.
The writer is describing an analogy, and we today often find analogies unconvincing. Even if there are parallels, we might say, that doesn’t prove anything, and doesn’t prove that the Sabbath is no longer required in its old covenant details. That’s true. Hebrews tells us what the Sabbath pictures, but it does not address Christian behavior regarding the Sabbath. For that, we must turn elsewhere, such as the statements of Paul we have already examined.
In summary, Hebrews 4 is not exhorting us to keep a weekly Sabbath, but to enter the rest of God by having faith in Christ. We come to Christ, and he gives us rest.
We should pray that we don’t have to flee on a Sabbath (Matthew 24:20). Does this show that Jesus’ disciples would be keeping the Sabbath?
This warning was given “to those who are in Judea” (verse 16). It is preserved only in Matthew’s Gospel, probably written to Jewish Christians. Jesus’ warning tells us more about practices in Judea than it does about Christianity.
It is permissible to flee for one’s life on the Sabbath. The reason it might be difficult to flee on the Sabbath, however, is that non-Christians in Judea are keeping the Sabbath, not that the fleeing Christians are. Perhaps the fleeing people keep the Sabbath or perhaps they do not, but either way it might be difficult to flee when the people of Judea have closed their shops, closed the city gates, etc. This verse does not prove that the disciples would be keeping the Sabbath — only that it might be difficult to flee on a Sabbath.
The resurrection stories show that the Sabbath still existed after Jesus’ crucifixion. The women “rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment” (Luke 23:56). Does this show that the Sabbath is still commanded for Christians?
The Sabbath still exists. Hanukkah does, too, but its existence does not prove that it has to be observed. When the Gospels tell us that the resurrection was discovered “after the Sabbath, on the first day of the week,” they are not telling us to keep the Sabbath any more than they are telling us to keep the first day of the week. They are simply telling us when this event occurred, using the term that was widely known at the time.
The women rested on the Sabbath, but their example does not tell us whether that commandment is still in effect. Today, many Sabbatarians would consider it permissible to prepare a body for burial, especially if the person had been dead for more than a day and there is no refrigeration. Luke’s readers, whether they kept the Sabbath or not, might have wondered why the women rested even though they were faced with this urgent need. Luke was inspired to tell his readers that the women rested because of the commandment.
Luke used the word “commandment,” but that does not prove that the commandment was required for Luke’s readers. Paul used the word “commandments” to describe the rules that divided Jews from gentiles (Ephesians 2:15), but the word does not imply that those commandments still had validity for his readers. Luke is simply using commonly understood terms to explain why the women rested. He is not giving a command for his readers to follow that example.
In a similar way, the phrase “a Sabbath day’s walk” (Acts 1:12) does not imply anything regarding the distance we may travel today on the Sabbath. The phrase was simply a measurement of distance, just as “Sabbath” was the name of one day of the week. The name does not imply continuing obligation for Christians.
The Sabbath is a reminder of creation and it points to salvation. God is re-creating us. However, our creation is not yet complete. Should we therefore continue to keep the weekly Sabbath as a celebration of salvation in Christ?
The Sabbath was indeed a memorial of creation. And it foreshadowed and pointed to our salvation in Christ. And our salvation is not yet complete. Nevertheless, Paul says that we are new creations. John says that we have already been given eternal life, and that eternal life is in Jesus Christ. We have been given the promised Holy Spirit, guaranteeing the future promises. We do not yet have the fullness of salvation, but we have enough. Paul can say that we should not let anyone judge us regarding the Sabbath. The reality is Christ, and we have the reality, even if it’s not yet in its fullness.
The sacrifices pictured our cleansing from sin, and yet we see that we are not yet sinless. But that doesn’t mean that we still need sacrifices. Although the last judgment has not yet been done, the verdict has been declared for all who have faith. Circumcision pictured a cleansed heart, and we are not yet perfect in our hearts, but the physical symbol is not required. Likewise, although our re-creation is not yet complete, even the beginning is sufficient to make old covenant practices unnecessary and not a basis for judging others. Of course, we still have a practical need for physical rest and worship times, but we cannot use the old covenant to demand that everyone rest and worship at the same time that we do.
The Sabbath pointed to our renewal in Christ, and in that spiritual meaning, the Sabbath is still required — just as the spiritual meaning of circumcision is required, and the spiritual meaning of the sacrifices is still valid. But the physical details of such laws are in a different category.
That is why Paul could treat the question of special days in such a take-it-or-leave-it way (Romans 14:5). If the people had faith in Christ, if their entire lives were devoted to the Lord, then they were already abiding by the purpose of sacred days. They were already experiencing the holiness, righteousness, peace and joy that come with the kingdom of God, in which God had placed them based on their faith in Christ. God’s own presence is in the saints on a full-time basis.
The Sabbath points to the re-creative, redemptive work of Christ, which is the most important event of all history. Shouldn’t we commemorate this weekly?
The Bible tells us to commemorate Christ’s redemption by means of bread and wine, not by a day of rest. Jesus make it clear, in his controversies with the Pharisees, that it is wrong to add requirements to God’s law and make things more difficult. We cannot teach as requirement something that the Bible does not. It is good to commemorate Christ’s salvation in weekly worship services, but we cannot insist that everybody worship on the same day and time we do.
The early church kept the Sabbath. Wasn’t it the influence of paganism that motivated some people to abandon it?
The earliest church was entirely Jewish, and it continued the practice of circumcision and other old covenant customs, too. It was only through time, discussion and the intervention of the Holy Spirit that the church came to understand that Jewish customs should not be imposed on others. Although gentiles were being grafted into Israel, figuratively speaking, making them spiritual Israelites, they did not have to live like Jews (Galatians 2:14). They did not have to obey all the rules that separated Jews from gentiles.
However, it was not paganism that prompted Paul to say that he was not under the old covenant law (1 Corinthians 9:19-21), or that Christians did not have to keep “the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5, 28). And it was not paganism that motivated Paul to say that days were not something to judge each other about (Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:16).
Many early Christian martyrs met for worship on Sunday. That doesn’t prove that this was the only acceptable day of worship, but their willingness to die for the faith is evidence that they were not compromisers. They were not likely to give up essentials merely for convenience or to make Christianity more attractive to pagans. In their lives and in their deaths, the central issue was allegiance to Christ, not whether they abstained from work on any particular day.
Although some early Christians kept the Sabbath, many others did not, and allegations of paganism are designed more to frighten people than to examine history objectively. Our doctrine must be based on Scripture, not on ancient or modern history.
Many Christians have lost their jobs because they kept the Sabbath, and God miraculously provided better jobs. Doesn’t his blessing show the correctness of their behavior and God’s approval of Sabbath-keeping?
God looks on the heart, on the attitude, and he blesses his people even if their behavior is based on a misunderstanding. He honors sincerity. If we do something with the conviction that God wants us to do it, he is pleased with our willingness, and he often rewards such sacrifices, but his rewards do not necessarily endorse our particular understanding. Similar miracles have happened to people who kept Sunday as a Sabbath, and to people who kept no Sabbath at all.
Many spiritual leaders kept the Sabbath, and we respect them. Wasn’t God inspiring them, and shouldn’t we follow their example?
Many good people have kept the Sabbath and inspired others to follow their example. But other faithful Christians, such as Peter Waldo, John Wesley and William Miller, observed Sunday, and many Christians followed the example they set. Such examples can be emotionally powerful to those who knew the people personally or knew them through their writings, but the examples do not carry as much weight with the general public.
When we preach to the public, we cannot ask them to follow a human — we must point them directly to Christ. The example of highly respected leaders, like any tradition, must be evaluated according to the biblical testimony. It is Christ we must preach, as he is revealed in the Old and New Testaments.
The Sabbath gives us rest from our physical labors, giving us more time for worship, fellowship and good works. It is a spiritually valuable time. Wouldn’t it be wrong to neglect it?
The old covenant specified exactly when and how much time should be separated for the Lord. It specified when and how and where to make sacrifices. These physical requirements helped keep the people aware of God, reminding them of their need for reconciliation and fellowship with him.
In the new covenant, however, we have been given the fellowship with God that the old covenant customs pictured. The Holy Spirit lives within us, helping us be aware of our relationship with God. The Holy Spirit transforms our hearts, leading us to love the Lord and to desire to spend time with him. It is good for us to spend time with the Lord and with his people. Those who neglect worship time stunt their spiritual growth.
However, we have no biblical authority to teach that everyone set aside the same time that we do. We encourage people to set aside time for prayer, Bible study, fellowship and good works, but we should not judge anyone regarding the days they keep. It is physically helpful to rest from our labors. It is spiritually helpful to devote time each week to the Lord, and we encourage people to do this, but we do not condemn those who do not set aside a 24-hour block of time. Rather than relying on an external discipline of rules, each Christian needs self-discipline to devote time to the Lord for spiritual growth.
Devoting time to the Lord includes prayer, study and worship services, of course. It can also include volunteer work in humanitarian service, such as by helping out at a hospital. Since service is one way to express true Christianity, service projects can rightly express the spiritual purpose of a day of worship. This could even be done as a group, as a congregational activity.
As a practical need, of course, we appoint a day and time for worship. We encourage all who can to meet with us and worship the Creator and Savior with us, but we do not condemn those who meet for worship on another day.
Shouldn’t we uphold the law?
We should use the law in a lawful way — and the new covenant, the law that Christians are now under, does not permit us to dictate when and how much time other Christians should give to the Lord. It does not permit us to bind heavy burdens on people and threaten them with the lake of fire if they don’t comply with our understanding. The real law we must be concerned about is the spiritual law, not the precise way the old covenant was to be administered.
We want to uphold the law in the way that is appropriate to the age after the coming of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament gives hundreds of commands. It gives a high standard of conduct for God’s redeemed people. It requires sacrifice and complete allegiance. It often quotes Old Testament laws and amplifies them to the intents of the heart. But it never commands Sabbath-keeping, and it commands the church not to lay unauthorized restrictions on God’s people. We should never let traditions annul the Word of God, and that includes traditions about old covenant customs that were once authorized, but now are not authorized.
We who are led by God’s Spirit want to obey our Creator and Savior. We encourage obedience, piety, and sanctification. We also emphasize that salvation is by grace through faith, and we accept as Christian everyone who has faith in Christ. Some Christians may continue to believe that their Savior requires them to keep the Sabbath. We believe that they are mistaken, but we do not criticize them for acting in accordance with their beliefs.
Paul did not preach that all law is done away. He knew well that faith leads to obedience, and that love works within the boundaries of law. But he treated the Sabbath as a matter of individual conscience, not for conformity. Why could he take such liberty with the Sabbath law? Our conclusion is that he could approach the Sabbath in the same way as he dealt with circumcision: He could take it or leave it. It was not a requirement because faith in Christ superseded it. We should uphold faith.
All who have faith in Jesus Christ are already abiding by the intent of the Sabbath law. If we walk by the Spirit, we are fulfilling the requirements of the law (Romans 8:5). We have come to Christ and he has given us rest. All who believe have entered God’s rest. Although a future rest yet remains, we are already entering his rest, and a specific day of rest is no longer required even though rest itself is physically and spiritually beneficial.
Our relationship with God depends on faith in Christ, not on a specific block of time. Of course, this does not do away with our practical need to give time to the Lord to pray, study, meditate, fast and imitate Jesus’ life-style of good works to the needy and preaching the gospel. If we allow secular things to occupy all our time, we will become profane, like Esau, and grieve the Holy Spirit. There is a spiritual need for worship time.
Christ exhorts his church to meet regularly to encourage one another in faith and good works and to worship. Those who remove themselves from the vine wither and die. Since God does not give a complete spectrum of his gifts to any one person, we must use our gifts to help one another grow in maturity. We must continue meeting together, and Christians should make reasonable efforts to meet weekly with the fellowship God has placed them in.
In summary, we enter God’s rest, the true Sabbath, by having faith in Christ. Simultaneously, it is also through faith that we are justified, regenerated, re-created, and adopted into the family of God. These are all metaphors for salvation. The Christian Sabbath is the regenerated life of faith in Jesus Christ, in whom every believer finds true rest. The weekly seventh-day Sabbath, which was enjoined upon Israel in the Ten Commandments, was a shadow that prefigured the true Reality to whom it pointed — our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.3
1 The Septuagint version uses the verb form of katapausin in Genesis 2:2.
2 Joshua, entering the promised land, did not give the people the spiritual rest (katapausin) of God. That’s why the psalmist, centuries later, spoke about another day. Therefore, verse 9 says, for that reason, because the psalmist spoke of a future rest (katapausin), it logically follows that there still remains a Sabbath-rest (sabbatismos) for the people of God, and, verse 11, we should make every effort to enter that rest (katapausin). However, if the sabbatismos rest were different than the katapausin rest, then it would not logically follow. We could not say the sabbatismos remains simply because the psalmist talked about a katapausin.
Verse 10, which begins with “for,” also presents a logical connection between sabbatismos and katapausin. A sabbatismos exists for Christians because they enter God’s katapausin. The logical connection would not exist if these were two different rests. The equivalence of katapausin and sabbatismos can be further seen in the parallel way they are used. In verse 1, he says that the promise of katapausin rest still stands. In verse 6, he says that it still remains (apoleipetai) that some will enter the katapausin rest. And in verse 9, he says that there remains (apoleipetai) a sabbatismos rest for us.
3 Though physical Sabbath keeping (abstaining from work on the seventh day) is not required for Christians, some of our congregations hold worship services on the seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday). Here’s why:
- Although our tradition was originally based on the erroneous belief that the seventh-day Sabbath was required for salvation, there is no biblical reason why we must change our day of worship even after discovering that our original reason was mistaken.
- Since some members arranged their work schedules to avoid Saturday work, in some congregations, Saturdays are the day on which most members can meet.
- Some of the facilities that we rent are available only on Saturday.
Author: Michael Morrison