Old Testament Laws: The Sabbath in Acts and the Epistles

1. In Antioch, what did Paul do on the Sabbath? Acts 13:14. In Corinth, what did he do? Acts 18:1-4. Did Paul have a custom of going to synagogue on the Sabbath? Acts 17:2.

2. Did Paul normally preach to Jews first? Acts 13:45-46; 18:6; Romans 1:16. In Philippi, where there was no synagogue, did Paul look for a place where Jews could be found? Acts 16:13.

Paul wanted to teach Jews about Jesus and how he was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets (Acts 18:28; 28:23). The synagogue was a good place to start, because Jews gathered there to read and discuss the Law and the Prophets. The Sabbath was the day on which they gathered, so Paul, being a Jewish teacher, regularly went to synagogues on the Sabbath. This was a good evangelistic strategy.

But a historical fact is not a command for us today. We do not have to imitate Paul’s participation in old covenant laws (Acts 16:3; 18:18; 21:26). We do not have to imitate his activities on the Sabbath, either. Christians do not have to go to synagogues on the Sabbath.

Articles About the Sabbath

James said that Moses was preached in the synagogues every Sabbath (Acts 15:21). But James was not encouraging gentiles to attend synagogues! The converts needed to hear about Christ, not about Moses. The synagogues were preaching strict requirements, including circumcision and the law of Moses. The gentile believers did not need to hear that kind of preaching. The Jerusalem conference gave gentiles a lenient decree with only four requirements.

Most Jewish leaders believed that God gave the Sabbath law only to the Israelites. A book written in the second century B.C. gives their view:

The Creator of all blessed it, but he did not sanctify any people or nations to keep the Sabbath thereon with the sole exception of Israel. He granted to them alone that they might eat and drink and keep the Sabbath thereon upon the earth. (Jubilees 2:31, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, [Doubleday, 1985], vol. 2, p. 58)

The Sabbath was one of the laws that distinguished Jews from gentiles. The rabbis taught that gentiles should observe laws that go back to Noah, and the Sabbath was not included. Although God blessed the seventh day at creation, he did not command it as a day of rest until the time of Moses. The Sabbath law was added 430 years after Abraham, as part of the law of Moses, given to Israelites only.

First-century Jews understood that gentiles did not need to observe the Sabbath unless they became proselytes and came under the covenant made at Sinai. This is why the Sabbath was not a big controversy in the early church. No one thought that uncircumcised peoples needed to keep the Sabbath, because God had never commanded them to.

When the early church decided that gentiles did not need to become proselytes or to keep the law of Moses (Acts 15), the decision meant, in that culture, that gentiles did not need to obey the law of Moses concerning the Sabbath.

When Paul said that Jesus destroyed the laws that separated Jews and gentiles (Ephesians 2:15), the Sabbath would have been included, because the Sabbath was one of the main laws that separated Jews and gentiles. When the early church allowed people to live like gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 2:14), they were saying, among other things, that it was not necessary to keep the Sabbath.

3. Did Paul also preach on other days of the week? Acts 17:17; 19:9. In Troas, did Paul wait until after the Sabbath to preach? Acts 20:6-7.

Although Paul was in Troas for an entire week, nothing is said about the Sabbath. But we are told the church came together on the first day of the week to break bread, and Paul preached. This means that a first-day meeting at which preaching takes place is a valid Christian example. Daily preaching (Acts 17:17; 19:9) is also a valid example — but an example is not a command.

The new covenant tells Christians to meet regularly (Hebrews 10:24), but it does not command when that must be. There is no biblical authority for changing the day of rest from the seventh day to the first. There is no new covenant authority for requiring any specific day of the week for rest or for worship.

We are never told that Paul rested or in any way avoided work on the Sabbath. We are told that he used the day as an evangelistic opportunity, just as he used any and every day of the week to preach about the Savior. His example shows liberty, and nothing about requirements.

4. What did Paul teach gentiles about the Sabbath? Colossians 2:16-17.

These verses do not tell us whether the Colossians were keeping the Sabbath. It does not matter, for Paul clearly says that Christians should not let people judge them regarding the Sabbath.

Paul starts verse 16 with the word therefore. He is drawing a conclusion from what he has just written in verses 13-15. Because God has forgiven us, because of Jesus’ death on the cross, because of his victory over his enemies, therefore we should not let anyone judge us regarding the Sabbath.

Under the laws of Moses, the Sabbath was a law by which people were judged. But Jesus’ crucifixion has changed that. Now, the Sabbath is no longer a basis for judgment. The proper standard for judgment is faith in Jesus Christ. The test of Christianity is not the day of devotion, but the Person to whom devotion is given. At the last judgment, the main question will not be about days, but about faith in Jesus Christ.

The Sabbath, festivals, new moons and other old covenant laws were a “shadow” of things to come. They were foreshadows — predictive shadows symbolizing things to come. Whether or not these have all been fulfilled, we are told not to let others judge us with regard to the Sabbath.

Whether we keep the Sabbath or not, we should not let others make us feel guilty regarding what we do on the Sabbath. In the new covenant, the Sabbath is neither forbidden nor required. It was a shadow, or precursor, of Jesus, and now that Jesus, the true Rest, has come, the shadow or precursor is no longer necessary.

The contrast between “shadow” and “reality” is also seen in Hebrews 10:1, which uses the same Greek word as in Colossians 2:17. The sacrificial laws were a shadow of the good things that were coming. Just as Jesus put the Sabbath in the same category as ritual laws, these verses also do. 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. Now that he has come, the days are no longer standards by which we are judged.

5. What did Paul tell the Romans about special days? Romans 14:5.

Both Jews and gentiles were members of the church in Rome. Some of the Christians felt that they should consider certain days different than others; some considered every day alike. Paul did not seem to be troubled by either approach — what was most important in this situation is to avoid judging another believer (verse 4). One believer should not put stumbling blocks in another’s way (verse 13). If God does not require a particular behavior, it is wrong to teach it as required.

In Judaism, special days were important. But Paul took a rather indifferent attitude to the concept of special days. That is because something significant had happened to change the basis of our relationship with God. The most significant event in history had happened: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of that, the old covenant laws came to an end. Days are no longer a matter for judging behavior.

6. What did Paul tell the Galatians about observing days? Galatians 4:10.

The Galatians had been pagans before they came to believe in Christ. But Judaizers were teaching them that they needed to be circumcised (which meant that they would need to keep the law of Moses—Galatians 5:2-3). The old covenant law was bondage, Paul said (Galatians 4:24-25; 5:1). The Galatian Christians had come out of one form of slavery (paganism, with its many external rules) and were being taught to come under another form of bondage (the obsolete old covenant, with its external rules). Such a teaching makes Christ of no value!

When the Judaizers taught “days and months and seasons and years,” it is likely that they taught the Jewish calendar with its days, lunar months, festival seasons and sabbatical years. Paul called these external requirements “weak,” since they could not transform the heart. He called them “inadequate,” since they can never earn us salvation, nor are they required after we are
given salvation.

Christians may keep such days if they want (as many Jewish Christians did), but Paul said they should not teach that such days are required under the new covenant.

7. Does a Sabbath rest still remain for the people of God? Hebrews 4:9. Is this rest something the ancient Israelites did not have? Hebrews 4:8. How do we enter God’s rest? Hebrews 4:3, first part.

The letter to the Hebrews was written to people who liked the customs of Judaism. The letter explains that the old covenant is obsolete and its regulations have been set aside. Throughout the letter, the readers are reminded that Jesus is much, much better than anything the old covenant had.

Jesus Christ is the main focus of the epistle. He has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. The old covenant rituals find their fulfillment in him. This is true of the Sabbath, too. The rest we experience through faith in Christ is infinitely superior to the rest the ancient Israelites were given in the Sabbath. When verse 9 mentions a Sabbath rest, it is praising the superiority of Christ. It is not re-commanding an old covenant law.

Joshua could bring the Israelites into the Promised Land, and he could give them the weekly Sabbath rest, but he could not give them the supernatural rest that comes only through Jesus Christ. But those who believe in Christ have entered God’s rest (verse 3), and they have entered it through faith in Christ, not by keeping an old covenant command. “Come to me,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28-30). We are exhorted to enter God’s rest by faith in Jesus Christ.

In Hebrews, “rest” is used to symbolize salvation, which includes spiritual rest. The weekly Sabbath of the old covenant symbolized the salvation made available in the new covenant. Jesus fulfilled the purpose of the Sabbath day. We are not exhorted to enter the Sabbath day, but to enter the rest that comes with faith in Jesus Christ.

This passage does not say whether the weekly Sabbath should or should not be kept. It does not address that question. Instead, it is speaking about something we find in Jesus Christ. It is speaking of the reality, not a shadow.

In summary, we have seen the following:

  • Many old covenant laws are now obsolete.
  • The early church decided that gentiles did not have to keep the law of Moses, the law that separated Jews from gentiles and was given only to Israel, the law that was added 430 years after Abraham.
  • The Sabbath was part of the law of Moses, given only to the Israelites.
  • Jesus obeyed God perfectly, yet he did not command the Sabbath or set an example of resting on the Sabbath.
  • Jesus gave examples of ritual laws that were more important than the Sabbath.
  • There is no new covenant authority for commanding the Sabbath.
  • Christians should not judge one another regarding special days.

No New Testament verse specifically cites the Sabbath as obsolete. Instead, there are verses that say the entire old covenant law is obsolete. The law of Moses, including the Sabbath, is not required. We are commanded to live by the Spirit, not by the law inscribed in stone. The Sabbath is repeatedly compared to things now obsolete: temple sacrifices, circumcision, holy bread, a shadow. The Sabbath is not a basis for judging one another, and it should not be taught as a necessary addition to Christ.

In concluding this section, we can briefly consider two stumbling blocks that confuse some people. First is the idea that the Sabbath is a “creation ordinance,” commanded ever since creation. To understand the error of this view, we must note these facts: Although Genesis says the seventh day was declared holy at creation, there is no biblical evidence it was a commanded rest until the time of Moses. The idea that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance is a human invention.

Marriage and reproduction were commanded at creation and are therefore “creation ordinances,” but Christians are free not to marry if they choose. Even if Sabbath observance had been commanded at creation, which it was not, that would not in itself prove that everyone must keep it today — especially when Paul says we should not let others judge us regarding the Sabbath. The laws contained in the Old Testament, including the law of Moses and laws given to the patriarchs, pointed to and were fulfilled and superseded by Jesus Christ.

The second idea that confuses some people is the idea that the Sabbath is required because it is part of the Ten Commandments. Many Christians think of the Ten Commandments as a permanent law code for all humans for all time. Nevertheless, the Ten Commandments were given to Israel as the centerpiece of the old covenant (Exodus 20:2; Leviticus 27:34). They were not given to the whole world.

It is true that the principles on which the Ten Commandments are based are timeless, and that the new covenant contains those same principles. But just because nine of the commandments are valid does not mean that all ten are; there is nothing in the Bible that says they must all stay together. Throughout the old covenant, moral laws are mixed in together with ceremonial laws; it should be no surprise that the old covenant also has a ceremonial law in the center.

The Christian life is based on the new covenant in the blood of Christ, not on the old covenant given to Israel. The Ten Commandments, written on tables of stone, are part of the old covenant and have been set aside, superseded by something that is permanent (2 Corinthians 3:7-10).

The Ten Commandments were given at a certain time, for a certain people. They even start with the preface that they were given to ancient Israel (Exodus 20:2). One of the commandments refers specifically to the land of Canaan (verse 12, last part).

Jesus said that certain ritual laws were more important than the Sabbath command, which implies that the Sabbath command is a ritual law, and that it became obsolete when the rituals did. Paul said that the stone tablets were once glorious, but have lost their glory because of the greater glory that has now come (2 Corinthians 3:7-10). Most of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament, but the Sabbath command is not. In fact, Paul specifically says that Christians are not to judge one another about the days they keep.

The Sabbath is not a new covenant command, but it can have practical benefits. It is a good practice to set aside a day each week, putting jobs and other activities on hold, in order to devote time to God in worship and service. But the church does not have scriptural authority (other than by misapplying the old covenant) for requiring an entire day to be set aside, and no authority for requiring either the seventh day or the first.

The Sabbath, as a commanded day of rest, was central to the old covenant, which has been declared obsolete. Although Christians may choose to obey it, it is not a requirement for Christianity. However, many commands are part of the new covenant.

Here are the other studies in this series:

Author: Michael Morrison


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