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Welcome to the show, I hope you’re ready for a biblically exciting discussion. And I hope you leave any a priori assumptions at the door. Don’t come into this thinking you know what I’m going to say.
Set aside your tradition and biases, and let’s approach God’s Word together for the purpose of answering a crucial question. There are those who believe that Christians are sinning if they don’t observe the Sabbath the way the Jews did. There are those who believe that God has absolutely no expectations for our weekly rest at all. And there are those who fall on a wide spectrum in the middle.
And I pray that by the end of today’s episode, we have some hard and valuable principles and conclusions from the Scriptures.
But before we do that, I hope that you will subscribe to this show on your favorite podcast provider, and I hope you’ll engage with The Year Long Celebration of God on social media. We love to provide worship prompts for you throughout the day, and we pray that can play a small part in your sanctification and discipleship.
And — as always — today’s episode notes, transcript, and worship resources will be available for you at CelebrationOfGod.com which you can access from the links in the description of this episode.
So, are Christians required to observe the Sabbath?
The first thing we need to lay out briefly is that the answer to this question is . . .
1. A Matter of Theology
For example, if you’re a Jew or part of any number of groups that believe that modern Christians should keep Old Testament laws, you’re going to have your answer to this question.
If you’re a Seventh Day Adventist, then your theology demands Sabbath-keeping.
Even the covenant theology of Presbyterians should lead them to unashamedly observing a weekly Sabbath — even though many don’t.
However, when it comes to Baptists and similar denominations there’s a significant amount of disagreement and often even disinterest.
Honestly, the disagreement makes sense. But the disinterest confuses me. To completely disregard the concept of a one-in-seven-day-of-rest is to not only ignore the biological sciences that clearly emphasize the need, but it’s to reduce the 10 Commandments to 9 Commandments and 1 Suggestion.
Do we really think that God made a mistake? Is it possible that — along with 9 testament spanning laws rooted in His character — He slipped in a solely Jewish, soon-to-be-done-away-with-at-the-advent-of-the-new-covenant command?
In addition to that, we have to recognize that the foundation of Sabbath-keeping was rooted in something God had done thousands of years earlier at the very creation of the universe when there were no Children of Israel or systematized religious system.
I think the disinterest surrounding this subject is one of ignorance. And I can say that primarily because that was my state for decades. I simply did not recognize how important a day of rest was to God.
But how important is it? What does God really expect of us . . . if anything . . . when it comes to a weekly rest.
2. The Old Testament Sabbath
The idea of Sabbath was simple, we were to stop doing some work and increase our engagement in other work. We’re going to distinguish between condemned work and commanded work.
And — honesty — the Bible didn’t have very many specific examples of condemned work. With the exception of traveling, there are only 4 categories of prohibited work to be found in the entire Old Testament. And some of them weren’t directly commanded, but were illustrated in later books to be examples of condemned work.
By the way, I don’t believe that Exodus 16:29-30 truly forbids travel from one’s home. This time in Israel’s life was unique from all others in that God was providing manna. One of the prohibitions we find in the Bible was collecting manna on Saturday. Well, God doesn’t send manna anymore, so that prohibition doesn’t apply to anyone living today. I believe the prohibition on travel was an over-exaggeration of a unique prohibition on the people at that time.
A. Daily food production was prohibited.
Other than gathering manna in Exodus 16:23-29, this could include gathering wood from Numbers 15:32-36, and kindling a fire from Exodus 35:2-3.
Now, we don’t have time to dig deep into each of these prohibitions, and — too be honest — there’s no reason to, but I want you to know that if you decide to study this further, you will find — as I said before — that God did not itemize every possible thing the Jews weren’t supposed to do. But from the commands and illustrations we see, it is very easy to understand what God was trying to accomplish with a Day of Sabbath Rest.
B. Laborious work was prohibited.
Today’s notes will have a bunch of helpful references for this point that I won’t mention here (Leviticus 23:7, 8, 21, 25, 35, 36; Numbers 28:18, 25, 26, 29:1, 12, 35), but this category specifically included: Field work (Exodus 34:21), treading winepresses (Nehemiah 13:15), selling goods (Nehemiah 10:31, 13:15-22; Amos 8:5), and bearing burdens (Jeremiah 17:19-27) — specifically with the understanding that the burden was being carried away to sell.
C. Godless personal pleasure was prohibited.
Allow me to read Isaiah 58:13-14, “If because of the sabbath, you turn your foot From doing your own pleasure on My holy day, And call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, And honor it, desisting from your own ways, From seeking your own pleasure And speaking your own word, 14 Then you will take delight in the Lord, And I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; And I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
This is a very important point we’re going to revisit later, but it makes perfect sense. God is never pleased when we pursue that which attacks His character. We’re never to lean on our own understanding or do what’s right in our own eyes.
And, lastly, D. Fasting was prohibited.
Not only did the Lord command various feasts to take pace on various Sabbaths, but there are illustrations of God’s people being commanded to eat on the Sabbath. For example, in Nehemiah 8:9-10 we read “Then Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, ‘Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’”
And here’s what all of this condemned working has in common:
First, it distracted from worship. Not only were the Jews to cease from work, the 10 Commandments make it clear that is it was supposed to be a day set apart for the corporate worship of God.
Second, it encouraged trust in one’s ability. God said, “Don’t work.” So, why would I work? I would work because I believe that if I don’t work, I won’t have what I need. But God promised the people that when they stopped working and put Him first, He would provide all they needed. It was a question of whether I trust God or myself.
This was illustrated in a massive way on the Sabbatical year where the people were commanded not even to plant any food one year in seven. This required epic amounts of trust as the people would have to believe that God was going to provide.
And therefore all such work, encouraged trust in one’s ability
God provides. We trust. God does what we cannot. We have faith. God says, “Rest.” We rest.
And that’s why not all work was condemned. Some work was condoned, and other work was commanded.
For example, military campaigns (Joshua 6:15), marriage and dedication feasts (Judges 14:12-18; I Kings 8:65), as well as Levitical duties (II Kings 11:5-9; II Chronicles 23:4, 8) like preparing showbread and putting it out (I Chronicles 9:32), offering sacrifices (I Chronicles 21:32; Ezekiel 46:4-5), and guarding the temple (II Kinds 1:5-9) were all allowed or expected.
So, we see that the forbidden work was work that resulted in providing for oneself. It encompassed all business activities that put coins in the coffers. It could be argued that it also included traveling for work. And the preparation of food was an interesting one because it’s the ultimate end of all work — sustenance and flourishing. Of course, feasting wasn’t forbidden, just the work that went into preparing the meal.
On the other hand, there was a lot of necessary work to be done. We’ll look at more examples later, but realize that doctors didn’t get the day off if someone desperately need him.
The Old Testament was purposefully vague on what constituted condemned work because it was not intended to be about the activities. It was about corporately worshipping God, caring for creation, developing a weekly reminder of just how much we need to trust God, and loving each other.
Ceasing from work to worship God, give creation a rest, caring for the community, and placing our complete trust in God to provide for our needs was the ultimate goal of the Sabbath. And the laborious work that was motivated by and contributed to nothing more than personal gain was the antithesis of that kind of lifestyle.
Now, unfortunately, the Jews did what we all do, and they ran from the spirit of the law in a vain attempt to keep the superficial letter of the law. God wanted their passionate worship; they wanted a list of do’s and don’ts that would cover their hineys.
3. The Rabbis and the Sabbath
For people like the Pharisees, all work became bad work.
According to the Jewish Publication Society, “In the Mishnah, the Rabbis enumerated 39 major categories (with hundreds of subcategories) of labor that were forbidden . . . based on the types of work that were related to the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, which ceased on the Sabbath.”
Later it says, “The Rabbis decreed that one not only should avoid forbidden acts but also must not do anything that (1) resembles a prohibited act or could be confused with it, (2) is a habit linked with a prohibited act, or (3) usually leads to performing a prohibited act.”
And this is how far they went to avoid breaking the letter of the law . . . “The rabbinic enactment of measures to prevent these possibilities was termed ‘putting a fence around the Torah’ (Avot 1:1). For example, ripping up a piece of paper was forbidden since it resembles ‘cutting to shape’ or could be confused with it. Similarly, agreeing to buy something was prohibited, because most agreements are confirmed in ‘writing;’ climbing a tree is forbidden, because it may lead to breaking twigs or tearing leaves, which could be construed as ‘reaping’ (i.e., separating part of a growing plant from its source). Other activities that by extension are prohibited on the Sabbath include the following: Adding fresh water to a vase of cut flowers (sowing — any activity that causes or furthers plant growth). Making a bouquet of flowers (making a sheaf). Separating good fruit from spoiled fruit (winnowing, selecting, sifting). Brushing dried mud from boots or clothes (grinding). Cutting hair or nails (shearing sheep-removing outer covering of a human or animal). Applying makeup (dyeing). Braiding hair (weaving). Drawing blood for a blood test (slaughtering).”
But all of this was too much. It was never commanded by God. The Lord never specifically said that the tabernacle work that ceased on the Sabbath was to provide a template for all other work. They lost the whole point of delighting in and trusting God, and the attempt to protect people from displeasing the Lord actually displeased the Lord because following the rules became the main goal. In the end, God was not glorified because the actual purpose of the Law was being completely missed.
Now, let’s consider . . .
4. The New Testament Sabbath
As we discussed last time, the Sabbath rest was designed by God to fulfill the following purposes:
A. It instituted healthy cycles of work and rest for the creation.
In the New Testament we see that nothing in this category has changed. Modern Christians aren’t superheroes who no longer need to care for our bodies because we have caffeine and electric lights. Our animals still need rest. Our land still needs rest. We still need rest.
B. It provided a consistent time of corporate worship.
Of course, we no longer live in a theocracy. Like all of the other rules and regulations that were unique to the Jewish people under the Old Covenant, we are not commanded to corporately worship God on Saturday any more than we’re commanded not to eat shellfish or bacon.
Also the Scriptures and history are very clear that the worship of Yahweh among Christians was moved to Sunday in observance of the Resurrection. Still, modern believers are to make sure they assemble with God’s people for corporate worship. This is not something we’re allowed to forsake.
In the New Testament, the Sabbath still . . .
C. exemplified the spiritual imagery of spiritual rest in a relationship with God.
The imagery is still true today. We look forward to the future Sabbath where we enter our eternal rest with God. And when we don’t rest, it’s easy to miss the anticipation of our future rest.
And D. The New Testament Sabbath still promoted the need to trust the Lord.
And — guess what — we still need to trust God. He is still our refuge and strength. He still wants to provide spiritual rest to all those who trust in Him. He still provides peace and contentment that passes all comprehension.
This means that from the beginning of the Church Age until now, the key functions of the Sabbath are just as applicable to Christians as they were to the genuine believers in the Children of Israel.
But before I go too far down this road. I want to talk about . . .
5. Jesus and the Sabbath
A. Jesus observed the Sabbath.
Some might argue that He didn’t have to observe the Sabbath, but — if that’s true — we can’t deny that He still chose to.
On the other hand, I argue that Jesus absolutely had to observe the Sabbath. He observed the very first one right after finishing Creation, He was the one Who demanded that the Sabbath be holy unto God, and that is precisely why He and His followers observed it while He was on earth.
The Sabbath was more than a mere theocratic show. It was tied directly to Creation, and it was designed to do so much more than give us a break from work.
However . . .
B. Jesus didn’t follow the manmade rules that stole God’s glory.
In the same way it’s important to acknowledge that Jesus submitted to the Old Testament expectations for the Sabbath by avoiding condemned work and embracing commanded work, it’s important to realize that He rejected the manmade additions to the Sabbath.
This makes all the sense in the world because the manmade additions completely missed the universal point. It focused too much on the action and completely missed the motivation.
So, it’s helpful to recognize that Jesus’ practice on the Sabbath brought the Sabbath observation back in line with God’s expectations — rest, worship, love, and anticipation. We can learn a lot from what Jesus did and said as we grow in our understanding of the Sabbath.
For example, Jesus never missed a chance to spend time with the Father on the Sabbath. He often healed on the Sabbath. There was nothing wrong with Him and His disciples picking heads of grain on the Sabbath. And we know that Jesus traveled to Bethany on the Sabbath.
Everything He did on the Sabbath was God’s will for Him, involved elevating the Father and preferring others above Himself, and perfectly fulfilled the expectations for a Sabbath rest.
So . . . now let’s consider . . .
6. The Christian and the Sabbath
If we take all of today’s observations, we’re going to come to the following conclusions.
A. Modern Christians do not need to observe the Old Testament ceremonial laws that were concluded with the fulfillment in Christ.
However, the one-in-seven Day of Rest cannot be swept under ceremonial law rug. The main purposes of the Day of Rest supersede the specific ceremonial requirements that were part of the Old Testament Sabbath traditions. The core of the Sabbath wasn’t rooted in tradition and law, but in God’s very character and man’s very need.
This means that . . .
B. Modern Christians need to rest one-day-in-seven so they can be Christ-honoring stewards of their bodies.
We aren’t superheroes unfazed by overwork. The same is true of our animals and land. Just like before the fall, man and nature need to rest once a week.
C. Modern Christians need to rest one-day-in-seven so they can be Christ-honoring stewards of their spirits.
The Scripture is very clear that God’s people need to participate in corporate sanctification and that God gave us pastors to facilitate that process.
Gathering as the Church on Sunday is very important. But I don’t think that a mere 1 to 2 hours of services is exactly what God intends.
I believe the Western Church needs to seriously reevaluate their corporate worship times in light of the Scriptures. I believe we fall far too short in giving God the 1-in-7 preeminence that He demands.
And when we steward our bodies and souls in a way that pleases the Lord . . .
D. Modern Christians need to rest one-day-in-seven to give God the priority in their lives.
We need to trust Him. We need to obey Him. We need to rest in Him.
E. Modern Christians need to rest one-day-in-seven as a unique way to love the people in their lives.
And finally . . .
F. Modern Christians need to rest one-day-in-seven in order to appreciate the future rest God has planned for them.
Are Christians required to observe the Sabbath?
Simply put, yes. But there is a difference between the way modern Christians will observe it and the way that ancient Jews observed it.
In order to put our full trust in God, we need to submit to His plan for our physical and spiritual thriving.
Now, the question on the table is, what does the practically look like? What are we allowed or not allowed to do? What day should we rest? And so on.
So, in preparation for answering those questions, I hope you will share this episode on your favorite social media outlets so that other followers of Christ can learn how to worship God better with their rest, and then plan to join us next time as we seek to better know, love, and worship God and help the people in our lives do the same.
To that end, we’ll be getting super practical as we discuss “How to Celebrate God with a Day of Rest.
The Year Long Celebration of God is a dynamic, holistic resource that utilizes the Bible, our holiday calendars, and even the most average moments of the most normal days to equip Christians to worship God all year long
and disciple others to do the same.
AMBrewster is the creator and host of the Celebration of God. He originally designed the COG to be a discipleship tool for Christian parents to train their children to know and love God, but he quickly realized how valuable it is for all Christians. Whether it's a small group, church, classroom, one-on-one, or community relationship, this resource is guaranteed to draw people closer together as they draw closer to God.
Aaron is the President of Truth.Love.Parent. and host of its podcast.