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!

For any further questions or topics you’d like me to address, fill out the form on this page: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

When Misinterpreting the Bible Leads to Tragedy

On Saturday, an apartment fire in NYC claimed the lives of 7 children. When you find out why it happened, you realize just how dangerous it can be to misinterpret the Bible…

Recently at White Fields church I have been teaching on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This past Sunday I taught Matthew 5:17-30, where Jesus refutes the misinterpretation of the Law of Moses by the Pharisees.

The Pharisees made 2 basic errors in regard to their interpretations of the Law of Moses. On the one hand, they would add rules to the Law of Moses, to make sure they didn’t accidentally break any of the commandments. On the other hand though, they created a system of loopholes to circumvent the very rules which they themselves added to the Law of Moses. The purpose of this was so that they could claim that they had “technically” kept the Law, while still making sure they had ways to do all the things they felt the need to do.

Modern day Judaism has had to deal with technological innovations, such as electricity and motor vehicles, which has greatly complicated the question of what constitutes “labor” on the Sabbath. In broad terms, they have landed on the definition that the breaking or building of anything constitutes “work”. So, practically, they have determined that it is not permissibly to drive a car, since combustion happens in an engine, nor are they allowed to turn on or off electricity, because it breaks an electrical current.

To circumvent this rule, especially in cold places, modern ultra-orthodox Jews, have tended to turn on a hot plate or an oven the night on Friday afternoon, before the start of the Sabbath, and that way they can heat food and keep their residences warm without technically doing “work”.

During my sermon this past Sunday, I mentioned a news story about an apartment fire in Jerusalem in an orthodox neighborhood, where – because people considered it not forbidden to use a phone on the Sabbath – the fire spread to 2 surrounding buildings before fire fighters were alerted and got to the scene to put it out.

Right after church, someone told me about the tragic events which had happened for very similar reasons the night before in New York City, in which an orthodox Jewish family had left a hot plate on in the kitchen, a common practice for those who adhere to the “Talmudic fence” which Pharisaical Judaism put around the Law of Moses; when the hotplate malfunctioned and caused a fire in the middle of the night in the apartment which left  7 children dead and the mother and oldest child in critical condition.

This is a tragic example of how misinterpreting the Bible can lead to tragedy…

One of the saddest parts of the news report was the final line:

“We believe that being buried in Israel is important because all of your sins are then absolved,” [Rabbi Alon Edri] said.

These Jews, who take the Law and the Prophets (Old Testament) seriously, understand that the fundamental need of the human soul is for our sins to be dealt with and wiped away. The problem is that they have no way of obtaining this, especially since for almost 2000 years now they have had no temple in which to make the sacrifices of atonement prescribed by the Law of Moses. The idea that being buried in Israel will absolve one’s sins is not found in the Bible; it is something they have created to deal with the problem that they deeply feel and see: that they need their sins to be forgiven, yet they have no way of having their sins atoned for. They have done something similar with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), on which, according to the Law of Moses, a sacrifice was to be made to atone for the sins of the nation – but instead of doing that, modern Judaism has settled for telling people to make “sacrifices of contrition” (read: feeling really bad about yourself and your sin) in order to make atonement. However, this, according to the Law itself, is not enough, for we know that “life is in the blood” and “there is no atonement of sin apart from the shedding of blood.”

Oh that they might come to see that Jesus came to fulfill all of the Law and the Prophets! That He is the atoning sacrifice which God provided for them.

We pray for this family, for the community and for the mother and daughter still in critical condition, that God would comfort them and that they would come to know the righteousness that God has provided for them apart from the Law, since “by the works of the Law, no one will be justified”.

The Eschatological Significance of the Christian Sunday

Following up on a previous post on why Christians worship on Sunday and the correlation between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday, I recently read something I found interesting.

While many people assume that Christianity just took the Jewish idea of Sabbath and moved it to Sunday, it turns out the reason for the Christian Sunday is deeply eschatological.

Check it out:

Jewish Sabbath

  • End (Saturday)
  • Rest from Creation
  • Happens after creation, within time: retrospective
  • Keeping of obligations
  • Preservation

Christian Sunday

  • Beginning (Sunday)
  • Commencement of the New Creation
  • Speaks to the aim of new creation: eternity = future-oriented
  • Celebrates that the obligations have been met by God through Christ
  • Resurrection

Christianity was not just a rebranding of Jewish practices, but an eschatological fulfillment of them.

The Christian Sunday is more than a day of rest for Christians, it is a day of new creation. In it, we remember not only to rest from our labor, but we are reminded that with the resurrection of Jesus, we stand at the dawn of eternity – and that one day soon, the Son will break over the horizon and usher in the New Day. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have witnessed the death of death and the birth of “the life that is truly life”.