Are Christians to Observe the Sabbath?

Posted 6/16/09


to be rewritten.


Varying claims of evidence have been presented to support the ongoing observance of the Sabbath. One such claim is derived from Jesus' words in Matthew.


Matthew 5:17 Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18 Truly I say to you, Until the heaven and the earth pass away, in no way shall one iota or one point pass away from the Law until all comes to pass.


Jesus is clear when he said that he did not come to destroy the Law, so the question becomes what he meant when he said that he came to fulfill it. According to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian this statement can be interpreted in one of two ways. They state that "depending on how one prefers to interpret the context, πιηροω is understood here either as fulfill=do, carry out, or as bring to full expression=show it forth in its true m[eaning], or as fill up=complete."[1] Carrying with it either the sense of "show its true meaning" or "complete," we need to look elsewhere to find the proper interpretation, for it is not defined in the context.


The Apostle Paul taught of how the Law was to be viewed by Christians, making it clear how we should understand this text. He explained: "So that the Law has become a trainer of us until Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But faith coming, we are no longer under a trainer; for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus." (Gal. 3:24-26)


The Law lead God's people to the Messiah. It served as a standard of obedience, but it could never be followed perfectly. Something more was necessary, which was Christ. He justified us because we are unable to do it ourselves. He completed the Law by perfectly following it to the point of death, and so per this text that is how we should understand his words in Matthew 5. As he completed it for us we are no longer under the burden of following it, though at the time he spoke the words it was necessary for them to follow it as it had not yet been fulfilled. (Mat. 5:19)


The issue of following the Law came up in the 1st century, and the apostles then addressed it. In Acts 15:5 we find that some from the Pharisees who had become Christians were saying that it was necessary to follow the Law. But notice how the apostles responded.


Act 15:7 And much disputation having occurred, rising up Peter said to them... 10 Now, then, why do you test God by putting a yoke [the Law] on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we had strength to bear? 11 But through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, we believe to be saved, according to which manner they also believed."


The apostles recognized that the Law could not be followed by imperfect man. It would always be violated. At the same time, Christ came and it was by him that we are saved because of belief. Quite simply, the apostles rejected the idea of still being under the Law.


In their rejecting the notion of being under the Law, they were careful to make it clear that there were certain things that Christians should still avoid that were included in the Law. It was not that the Law itself was to still be followed in part, but that even though we are not under the Law there are things that God continues to not approve of. We are told to avoid "idol sacrifices, and blood, and that strangled, and fornication." (Act. 15:29) The Sabbath was not listed among those things that God still required.


What we have so far considered deals with the Law in general as defined by Jesus in Matthew 5, showing that he came to complete it for us. This would include the Sabbath as well. We can confirm this when we observe that the Apostle Paul made a specific reference to the observance of the Sabbath. He explained: "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a Sabbath day." (Col. 2:16) In other words, they were not to be concerned with how others viewed them simply because they did not observe various events, including the Sabbath.


While it might be objected that the word Sabbath is a plural within Colossians 2:16, it is understood as the weekly event. The same plural is used for the Sabbath in Exodus 20:8 within the Septuagint. The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament explains the following for Galatians 2:16: "This describes the monthly festival and the following word σαββατων refers to the weekly holy day (Lightfoot)."[2] Further, The Expositor's Greek Testament relates: "The Sabbath is placed on the same footing as others, and Paul therefore commits himself to the principle that a Christian is not to be censured for its non-observance. Sabb., though plural in form, means a single Sabbath day."[3]


It is clearly seen then that a Christian is not under obligation to observe the Sabbath. This principle would also apply to other customs unique to the Mosaic Law. This does not mean that Christians are free to do anything they desire. They are expected to love and with love comes a strict moral law that a true Christian would always strive to follow. (Rom. 13:8-10)


[1] Bauer, W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG). Revised by F. W. Danker and F. W. Gingrich. Translated into English by W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 829
[2] Rogers Jr, Cleon L. and Rogers III, Cleon L. The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (NLEK), (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998.), 465.
[3] The Expositor’s Greek Testament (EGT), volume 3, Edited by W. Robertson Nicoll, Reprint from the edition originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pubishing Company, (Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2002.), 351.