Doesn't the New Testament teach that we should keep the Sabbath?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: I think that Christians should keep the Sabbath. First of all, I find no verse that commands us to keep the Lord's day instead. Second, I realize that we are not physical Israel, but we are the spiritual chosen ones (spiritual Israelites). Third, since you deny the fact that we don't have to observe Sabbath day, then why would you worship God since Sabbath day is a grace given by God to His chosen ones? Forth, in the new testament, the people still have to observe Sabbath day even Jesus Himself. And fifth, He is the Lord of Sabbath (Mark 2:28) So if He didn't remove this law, how could you remove this law? 

Answer: Thank you for your question. It is certainly a mouthful! But it will be my pleasure to respond. Before I do, however, just let me say that Sabbath-keeping is a secondary issue among Christians, and as long as we can agree about the primary issues, salvation and service in Jesus Christ, we can discuss this Sabbath business as fellow believers who disagree on some non-critical points. In my opinion, the manner or the day we choose for corporate worship of the Lord is of little importance compared to the fact that we both agree that he is the Lord. So, with that in place, let's begin.

You are correct in your observation that there is no “Lord’s day” verse that is equivalent to Exodus 20:8’s “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” in the NT (New Testament). But that is okay because the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath day are different types of things. As such, a Sabbath-equivalent verse would have no necessary place in the NT — that’s not how the NT works.

In common language, however, people frequently use the terms like “Sabbath” and “the Lord’s day” loosely to represent Sunday — this is just the relaxed use of language in everyday speech. But such usage is decidedly non-technical, and as such, it will remain outside of this discussion. Within our discussion, however, we should be clear on two things: the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day are not equivalent in the Bible, and the OT (Old Testament) Sabbath did not become the NT Lord’s Day… this, in spite of the fact that both days were designed for the assembly of believers.

I agree with you that we should view national Israel as God’s “chosen ones,” and I also agree that we (Christians, the Church) are not physical Israel. But I must separate myself from the notion that we are spiritual Israel. First, this term is found nowhere in the Bible. Second, that phraseology could mean so many things to so many people (and it does!) that it is useless as a concept in the absence of an unmanageable pile of qualifications. Third, the counsel of the Bible is that national Israel and the Church are discrete entities; this is seen clearly in Paul’s analogy where different branches are grafted into the same olive tree.

“….if the root is holy, so are the branches. If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.….Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!” (Romans 11:16–24, NIV)

(Note: We must always be careful never to push an analogy beyond the author’s purpose — and my anachronism threatens to do that. But I do not think that the following comments do injury to Paul.)

In Paul’s analogy, Israel and the Church are separate elements that are defined by whether or not they partake of God’s nourishment. When they both thrive in God, they are the same — but only in that one aspect. Indeed, DNA analysis would reveal that they are intrinsically different — grafting does not change that. Now, each branch would have enough DNA in common with the tree (and therefore with each other) to thrive, but they would each be a distinct element — albeit a related species. But related does not mean equivalent.

Opinions vary widely on just how these differences might play out — and we are all somewhere along that line! But I must separate from you in the notion that this “spiritual sameness” (and in whatever form) should manifest itself in Christian Sabbath-keeping. Why? The NT knows nothing of Christian Sabbath-keeping.

“But (your question counters) the NT does indeed show people keeping the Sabbath. In fact, the Gospels and the book of Acts show Jesus, his disciples — and a whole lot of other folks — going in and out of the Temple and the synagogues on the Sabbath. How can you say that the NT knows nothing of the Sabbath-keeping when Sabbath-keeping is recorded plainly within its pages?”

To address this issue, we must understand that, although Jesus’ corporeal ministry represented a time of transition between the covenants, he lived his entire life as a Jew — not as a Christian. So, even though he lived in the NT, and even though he was the Christ, “Christians” weren’t even invented yet. Hey — the New Testament wasn’t even invented yet… not in the way you’re thinking about it. That New Testament started with the birth of the Church in Acts chapter two. But up until the cross of Christ, God’s world was a Jewish world — even though it was populated with people who would later become Christians. So, it is helpful to think in terms of “spiritual economy” rather than in terms of OT and NT, and here is how that is important to your question.

The majority of the Gospel narratives (and therefore a sizable chunk of the NT) lay on top of the OT spiritual economy. So, if Luke reported that a disciple went into the temple on the Sabbath, this is not the Bible endorsing Christian Sabbath-keeping. This is merely a record of a historical event. As such it has no “go ye and do likewise” aspect.

In general terms, the biblical accounts of persons living under the OT spiritual economy were not limited to the OT books — and this is why you observed Sabbath-keeping in the NT. Such activities in the Gospels merely mean that these accounts are located in a NT book. But these characters lived, worked and worshipped in the spiritual economy of the OT. The legal requirements of the Old Testament continued in force until the cross of Christ. They did not stop at Malachi 4:6.

Let’s look at the trouble we can get into if we incorrectly discern where the Law of Moses applies.

“On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.” (Luke 2:21, NIV) (c.f. Lev. 12:3).

Oh oh… it looks like we had better begin “inspecting” the men in our churches. After all, Jesus himself was circumcised — right there in the book of Luke… and Luke is in the NT! Therefore, Scripture promotes Christian circumcision!

Wrong! This is merely the NT record of an OT law that was performed under the then-ongoing OT spiritual economy. Therefore, the fact that Sabbath-keeping “shows up” in the NT is insufficient justification for Sabbath-keeping under the NT spiritual economy — but that is where the Lord’s Day lives. The fact that the Sabbath day and the Lord’s Day are embedded in different spiritual economies further highlights their intrinsic differences.

I am having trouble parsing the phrase: “Since you deny the fact that we don't have to observe sabbath day, then why would you worship God since Sabbath day is a grace given by God to His chosen ones ?” 

First, I assume that you meant to say, “Since you deny the fact that we do have to observe Sabbath day…” (Because I hold the view that that Christians are not supposed to keep the Sabbath). But then you make the Sabbath day a grace — but one that is essential to Christian worship. That is a false statement both logically and in observed practice.

As to the Sabbath day being “a grace,” Scripture shows that the Sabbath day was given to national Israel as a sign of their unique relationship to God — that was its purpose. Therefore, except that giving such a sign shows that God is intrinsically gracious, one cannot say from this that the Sabbath is denominatively “a grace.” Furthermore, Scripture contains no such phrasing.

“Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy.” (Exodus 31:12–13, NIV, emphasis mine)

As to your idea that the Sabbath day and Christian worship are connected by necessity, this is logically (and experientially) false. The Sabbath day exists whether or not Christian worship exists. Conversely, Christian worship exists whether or not the Sabbath day exists. Therefore, one is not dependent upon the other for existence. As for observable practice, Christian worship happens at any time and on any day — which includes both Saturday and Sunday. But as to the “official” worship-day-of-record, a small minority of Christians worships on the OT Sabbath (Saturday), while the vast majority of Christians worship on the Lord’s Day (Sunday). You can probably see why that part of your question makes no sense to me in either logic or observation… and I do not know how I would reply further to it.

The fact that Jesus claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath, however, was merely part of his fulfilling the law (Matthew 5:17). Everything changed at the cross of Christ — including the Sabbath. When the Temple veil ripped in two (Matthew 27:51), every sacerdotal aspect of the OT law became redundant. Please note that they did not just go away… they were fulfilled — and this includes the Sabbath… and this creates a problem for Christian Sabbath-keepers. Let me illustrate.

Let’s say you’re the groundskeeper for an athletic stadium, and you just used state-of-the-art equipment to prepare your natural grass for tomorrow’s game. You’ve gone to the top of the stadium to observe it — and it is perfection… but out of the corner of your eye, you see some movement. There’s a guy running back and forth across the field with a 20-inch hand-mower — and he is “mowing” what you’ve just clipped to perfection. How would you feel? Among other things, you’d be mad —and you’d probably think he was crazy! But mostly, you’d feel insulted. Your job was perfect. Can’t he see that? In fact — he’d be dissing you by doing it.

How do you think Jesus feels — the Lord himself — who did his perfect work on the cross to pay for our sin… not in part, but in full — not in part, but finally! And he did this by fulfilling the law — and in so doing, he made redundant all those OT ordinances. We have no more need for priests, no more need of bulls and goats… and hey!… no more need of Sabbath-keeping!

The Bible tells us that if a Christian were to keep offering animal sacrifices in light of Christ’s having already fulfilled that need, this would be insulting to him (Hebrews 6:6). So, what was the Sabbath anyway? As discussed, it was a sign of the OT spiritual economy, but practically speaking, it was a “container” for all those sacerdotal particulars. As such, Sabbath-keepers today ignore Jesus’ fulfillment of the Sabbath, and in so doing, they insult the Christ. They are, in effect, running around with their 20-inch mowers after Jesus had already mowed the lawn.

How about blending the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day together then? No can do. Remember, they are different types of things. The Sabbath, as observed under the Law, was inextricably connected to national Israel and the OT sacrificial system. Knowledgeable Christians see the need to distance themselves from the Jewish system — and using Sunday for corporate worship helps to do that. But here is one obvious difference between the systems that repudiates NT Sabbath-keeping: The OT Sabbath-keepers were looking ahead to the cross… blindly, but in faith — while the Christians were looking back to the cross to remember Christ’s sacrifice. Note this well: Both were looking to the same thing — the cross! So, here’s my problem:

We have a clear view of the cross behind us… so why look for it as if it didn’t occur? This is what Sabbath-keeping does today, and this is why it insults the Christ. Sabbath-keeping purports to do the work that he’s already completed, and such efforts are destructive rather than constructive. Jesus spoke about this in the following parable:

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16–17, NIV)

Jesus often taught that he was bringing something new to the kingdom of God. After all, one would never use a new cloth to patch an old garment. That repair would not last! And one would not store new wine in old wineskins, because the old skins were already maximally stretched and they would not tolerate the new wine expanding. So, make no mistake: Jesus was bringing new wine.

The thing we cannot do is to forcibly combine the old and the new covenants together in a way that they were not designed to join. Paul’s olive tree analogy showed that the two covenants are confluent in that they join all God’s people into God’s purposes through time, but that doesn’t get us off the hook. We must still identify the discrete elements which should not be joined lest a greater purpose be destroyed — like the old and the new cloth, like the old wineskins and the new wine… like the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.

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