Reader Questions: Christians and the Sabbath

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This question was recently submitted:

The commandments were written by the hand of God and the 4th directs us to keep the Sabbath holy. No one has the authority to set aside or alter any of God’s laws. Please explain with reference to the Bible. I know we are saved by grace and not works and that no one can keep the Ten Commandments but our Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s Laws Fall Into Three Categories

The 613 Old Testament laws fall into three different categories, and are treated differently in the New Testament. The three categories are:

  • Civil Laws
  • Ceremonial Laws
  • Moral laws

For the people of Israel, all three types of laws were blended together. Breaking a moral law had civil and ceremonial consequences. But in the New Testament, by the time of Jesus, Israel was no longer a theocratic nation-state, but was an occupied territory ruled by the Roman Empire. As such, they had to follow the laws of Rome, which in some cases contradicted their Jewish law, such as in the case of capital punishment: Roman law forbade the Jews from carrying out capital punishment against those who broke the Old Testament laws. Only the Romans were allowed to carry out capital punishment. This created a conflict for the Jews, much in the same way that Muslims in Western countries struggle with their inability to live by Sharia law.

The Ceremonial Laws, we are told in the Letter to the Hebrews, all foreshadowed and pointed forward to Jesus, and were fulfilled by Him and in Him.

The Moral Laws were fulfilled by Jesus in that He lived a perfect life, free of moral failure. But unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, the moral laws reflect God’s character, and since His character doesn’t change, neither does His moral standard. In fact, whenever Jesus talked about the moral laws of the Old Testament, he either re-affirmed them or intensified them (see Matthew 5:21-48).

In the 10 Commandments, what makes the 4th Commandment unique is that it is the only one which is a ceremonial law.

The Shadows and the Substance

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Colossians 2:16-17

What the Apostle Paul is telling us here is that the Sabbath is an example of something which foreshadows Jesus.

Imagine if you went out of town for an extended trip, and when you came back, your wife came running out to meet you, but rather than embracing you, she threw herself on the ground and started kissing your shadow. That would be strange, since you – the actual substance – are standing right there!

Or imagine if you were sitting on the couch next to your wife, but rather than embracing you, she instead hugged a photograph of you.

This, Paul is saying, is what it is like when we focus on the shadows rather than the substance, now that He (Jesus) has come.

The Principle and The Purpose

As mentioned previously, the Book of Hebrews shows us how all of the ceremonial aspects of Judaism foreshadowed Jesus and were fulfilled in Jesus. Hebrews 3 & 4 address the Sabbath rest.

The essence of what it says in Hebrews 3-4 is that both the Sabbath day rest and the rest of the Promised Land were not ends in themselves, but pointed forward to the true rest of God which is found in Jesus. Thus, the purpose of the Sabbath is to point us to Jesus, in whom we rest from our labors of trying to justify ourselves before God.

However, there still remains the issue of a “Sabbath principle”: the idea that it is wise and good for us to take a break from our work, and set aside a day dedicated to physical rest and Spiritual enrichment.

It is important to note that for Christians, Sunday is not the “Christian Sabbath.” For a discussion of the significance of Christian worship on Sundays, see these articles:

In summary: the message of the New Testament is that what it means to truly honor the Sabbath is to embrace the gospel and enter into the ultimate rest in Jesus, to which the Sabbath points. Jesus and the salvation He came to provide is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, and honoring the Sabbath means embracing that salvation by faith and living in it.

Thank you for the question!

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