Should Christians Observe the Sabbath?

(And other questions the apostles already answered)

I’m concerned and perplexed by the resurfacing of questions within the church that were asked and answered many years ago.  Should Gentile Christians observe the Jewish Sabbath?  Is it wrong to gather for public worship on Sunday?  Is it necessary to abstain from pork, shellfish, or other foods the dietary laws of the Old Testament forbids?  Am I permitted to wear clothing that mixes materials such as cotton and wool?  What about the hundreds of other laws and customs kept by the Jews?

The Early Church’s Greatest Challenge

The most challenging issue faced by the early church was how to merge Jewish and Gentile converts into one body.  This was no small matter.  This issue became so serious in the first years of the church that it threatened to derail the church’s progress.

SabbathMany Jewish converts to Christianity insisted that Gentile believers abide by centuries-old Jewish customs and some or all of the Old Testament covenants. Disagreement about these issues escalated to serious conflict and even physical persecution.  The persecution of Christians did not only come from the leaders of Judaism or the Roman Empire.  Some persecution of Gentile Christians came from their own Jewish brothers in Christ.

The greatest detriment to the infant church by this ideological conflict was it distracted the church from its ultimate purpose.  Instead of concentrating on the Great Commission, the church was drawn into a quagmire of internal dissension.  As is so often the case (even today), this internal conflict robbed the church of its focus.

The Showdown at Antioch

Even the apostles were drawn into the divisive conflict. At one point Peter and Paul had a heated, face-to-face argument.  Paul rebuked Peter for his two-facedness at Antioch!  When Peter was in Antioch visiting the Gentile church, he ate with them, enjoying their brotherly fellowship.  But when James and a delegation of Jews from Jerusalem arrived, Peter suddenly changed his behavior.  He got up from the table and sat with the Jews, fearing their condemnation for him eating with Gentiles. Other Jewish Christians who had been fellowshipping with the Gentile believers at Antioch followed Peter’s poor example.  Even Barnabas was drawn into the conflict and followed, in Paul’s words, “Peter’s hypocrisy” (Galatians 2:11-21).

Paul’s stern words to Peter were a reminder that we are justified by the work of Christ, not by our adherence to the Law:

Galatians 2:14-21: When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?…know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified…I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (NIV)

The Jerusalem Counsel

Paul’s rebuke of Peter’s hypocrisy did not resolve the issue.  The challenges of merging Jewish and Gentile converts were widespread.  Jewish Christians in Judea were teaching that all Christian converts needed to be circumcised.  Paul and Barnabas had “no small dissention and disputation with them” (Acts 15:2).  A sect of believers in Jerusalem were likewise teaching that Gentile converts should be circumcised and were commanding the converts to keep the Law of Moses.

This issue had to be settled.  The apostles needed to address these questions that had the potential to derail the progress and unity of the church.  The apostles and elders met with Paul and Barnabas to consider the matter.  Peter rose up to speak:

Acts 15:10: 10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? (KJV)

Paul and Barnabas also addressed the counsel.  After much intense discussion and prayer, James, the Sabbathpastor of the Church of Jerusalem, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, spoke words of wisdom that became the official ruling of the entire apostolic counsel:

Acts 15:19,20: 19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. (KJV)

There was a consensus and a witness in the Sprit that this ruling was the Will of God.  The apostles wrote an official letter that answered the question, “What portions of the Law of Moses should be kept by Gentile converts?”

Acts 15:23-29 – 23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: 24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment… 27 We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. 28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. (KJV)

What is as striking as the requirements mentioned is the absence of others.  They did not mention circumcision.  They did not mention keeping the Sabbath.  There is no mention of adhering to the dietary laws of the Old Testament (other than abstaining from meat that had been offered to idols, from blood, and from things strangled).  There is no mention of observing the feasts or any number of other Jewish customs and oral traditions.

Those demanding the keeping of the Sabbath were trying to put upon Gentile converts demands they themselves could not keep.

Equally as remarkable is the fact that James was the one writing this ruling.  He was the pastor of the mostly Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem.  It is likely that many of the antagonists of this issue were members of James’ church.  As far as his personal life, James chose stay true to his Jewish roots observing all the Old Testament law to the best of his ability.  Yet in this ruling, James feels led of the Spirit to impose only the four items mentioned above upon the Gentile converts.

The Sabbath

The glaring absence of any mention of Gentile converts keeping the Sabbath can only be interpreted one way.  The apostles rightly understood that keeping the Sabbath as instituted in the Old Testament was a covenant with Israel, not with Gentile converts.  They understood what is reiterated over and over in the Old Testament – the Sabbath was for “My people, Israel:”

Exodus 31:16-17: 16 Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: (KJV)

There is no mention in Acts of the Gentile church gathering together to worship on the Sabbath. Certainly the apostles went to the synagogue on the Sabbath to preach Christ because it was a wise evangelistic strategy.  There is clear evidence, however, of the church gathering on the first day of the week for worship and preaching (Acts 20, 1 Cor. 16).  Throughout the epistles there is never a command for the church to gather together for corporate worship on any particular day of the week.

Jesus is our Sabbath

As a New Testament church, we observe all of the Ten Commandments.  We do “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.”  We just don’t do it in the same manner that the Jews did in the Old Testament.  In Matthew 11, Jesus said:

Matthew 11:28–30: 28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (KJV)

It is crucial to understand the context of this passage.  Jesus was rebuking the Jewish cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.  He said if the mighty works that had been done in your cities had been done in the Gentile cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom, they would already have repented.  It was an indictment of their staunch religious tradition and resistance to the message of Christ.

It is in that context that Jesus says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden.”  He is speaking to Jews who have struggled under the heavy burden of the Law.  But He says My yoke is easy.  The yoke of the Law is not.  My burden is easy.  The burden of Moses is not.

SabbathCome unto Me and find rest for your souls. Jesus said, “I will give you rest.”  What’s fascinating about this verse is its reference to the Sabbath.  The word for “rest” in this passage is the Greek equivalent of the Old Testament Hebrew word for “Sabbath.”

Are you tired of laboring under the heavy yoke of trying to measure up to the Law? Jesus said come to Me.  I will give you “Sabbath.”  I will be your Sabbath. He said I will give you rest.

Jesus is our Sabbath. He has instituted a new and better covenant.  We have, by faith, laid down the old yoke and taken up Christ’s yoke.  The rest we enjoy is no longer about resting on a particular day of the week.  In Christ we find an eternal rest for our souls.  There is no longer a need to observe the Sabbath of the Old Testament.  The heavy burden of trying to measure up to the demands of the law and the keeping of the Sabbath has been cast on Him.  We trust in His works now, not our own.

Jesus is our Sabbath!

We remember the Sabbath and keep it holy in a greater sense than observing a list of do’s and don’ts for a day of the week.  We honor the Sabbath by declaring that in Christ the Law is fulfilled and complete.  In Him we cease from trying to find righteousness by observing Sabbaths, feasts, holy days, or dietary laws.  The Law was the shadow.  Praise God, Jesus is the substance!  The Law was a schoolmaster to point us to Christ.  And we have found Him!

From Saturday to Sunday

It is clear from the Acts record that the earliest Jewish Christians gathered to worship on the Sabbath.  The move toward Sunday public worship began with the infusion of Gentile converts. There was little controversy about matters of the Law or the Sabbath until Gentiles were added to the church.  It was the grafting in of Gentile Christians and questions concerning what Jewish laws and customs they should keep which sparked controversy.  As more and more Gentiles were added to the church, the shift toward Sunday public worship gained momentum.

What prompted that move was the desire to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus and the meeting He had with His disciples, which both occurred on the first day of the week, not the Sabbath.  It’s likely that Gentile Christians also gravitated toward Sunday worship to distinguish themselves as a religion distinct from Judaism.  In the first years of the church, all the believers in Christ were Jewish.  At that time they were simply considered another sect of Judaism.  They were not called Christians until Acts 11 in Antioch.  And so a move toward Sunday worship was a way to distinguish themselves as Christian.

By the time the Book of Acts and the epistles were written, Sunday worship was the norm among Pauline churches.  By the time John’s book of Revelation was written, we see the term, “The Lord’s Day,” which is a clear reference to Sunday.  Early church history is clear: By the time the church became predominantly Gentile, Sunday was commonly their day of public worship.  It’s important to note, however, that Paul did not institute Sunday worship because he was clearly opposed to esteeming one day over another.  He required neither Sabbath observance nor Sunday worship.  He even labeled those demanding worship on a particular day or those adhering to dietary laws as being “weak” (Romans 14).

A Sad Irony

Those who call for others to keep the Sabbath are generally not keeping the Sabbath themselves. Unless they are fully keeping every law of the Sabbath, then they are choosing how they will remember the Sabbath.  I’ve heard some say, “We don’t advocate keeping all the Laws of Sabbath, we just think we should gather to worship on Saturday.”  But by taking that position they have personally chosen what to observe and what to disregard.  Such people have no standing to judge others about how they honor the command to “remember the Sabbath day.”  In fact, to observe only the parts of the Sabbath they deem important brings a very serious condemnation:

James 2:10 – 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. (KJV)

Galatians 3:10 – 10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. (KJV)

In reality, they cannot keep the Sabbath as the Old Testament required.  No one ever really could. James’ landmark ruling at the Jerusalem counsel brought this irony to light.  Those demanding the keeping of the Sabbath were trying to put upon Gentile converts demands they themselves could not keep.

Sabbath and Public Worship

Yet another error in the doctrine of those demanding corporate worship by the church on Saturday is their ignorance in distinguishing between Old Testament Jewish worship and Jewish observance of the Sabbath.

It was common for the Jews to gather at the synagogue on various days of the week to worship.  Remembering the Sabbath was more about what they did in the home than what they did at the synagogue.  So even if we were under a command to observe the Sabbath, there would be no error in meeting on Sunday, Tuesday, Friday, or any day of the week to worship as a church.  Paul makes this plain in his letter to the Colossians:

Colossians 2:16–17: 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: 17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ. (KJV)

The Last Days

In the Last Days deception and delusion will be rampant.  The spirit of anti-Christ will influence the minds of many.  We think those things that are dark, demonic, or obviously evil as being anti-Christ. But in truth, anything that directs attention away from Christ is anti-Christ.  It’s troublesome that people, well intentioned as they may be, are drudging up 2000-year-old questions that were already settled by the apostles.  An interest in and study of the Jewish foundation of our faith can be beneficial, especially when it magnifies the central figure of the scripture, Jesus Christ!  But any attempt to get peoples’ focus off of Christ by looking backward and by celebrating the things that are to lead us toward Christ may be a subtle trick of the spirit of anti-Christ.

In these last days when our time to fulfill the Great Commission is short, let us not be side-tracked by divisive questions that have already been asked and answered.  Distraction is a tactic of the enemy.  If he can’t get you to backslide, he’ll try to get your focus off of the main thing.  Let us declare, like Andrew, “We have found the Christ!”  We have no need in returning to things ordained to lead us to Him.

~Matthew Ball

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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6 thoughts on “Should Christians Observe the Sabbath?

  1. This is an excellent article. We are not under the law at all if we have entered into Covenant with Jesus Christ. He fulfilled the Law, and is able to present us blameless before God. Bending to the Law in efforts to keep it was even called a ‘yoke of bondage’ in one place.

    We just finished translating Missionary Mark Naimy’s book into Spanish to help with this very issue in Cuba, called “The Real Truth About Keeping the Sabbath, the Dietary Laws, and the Law of Moses”

    As the article points out, why go backwards when we are looking to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.

    “Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (Gal 5:1)

  2. Excellent article! Something else interesting to point out is, the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday, so technically, if you’re a proponent of worshipping “on the Sabbath,” you would gather to worship on Friday evening. This is when modern Jews have their services. They also have Sunday school on Sunday.

  3. Pastor Ball, I know I have not been to your church In years. Because of you, you father, your uncle and your grandfather I have always been Apostolic/Pentecostal. I have never wavered in my belief’s or the beliefs that my children should learn/be taught. I may not be as educated as you are but I do know that the Bible says that God rested on the 7th day( before the law of Moses). Establishing the Sabbath way before the Law of Moses. I also know that Constantine changed the day of worship, ( yes I have done the research myself) The Catholic church has documents stating this. I wanted to let you know that what I/ we are learning is not “How to be Jew’s” We are honoring the 4th commandment. Because before the change by Constantine everyone who believed the message of Jesus, observed the Sabbath. We do observe it but not under the Law of Moses but Under the Commandments. I still eat “unclean meat” pork,shrimp, etc. I/we (my family) are not trying to be Jewish! We doing what God said. Can you tell me honestly that following God’s word is wrong? Something that God put in place should not be followed? Yes, Jesus is our Sabbath but was he not raises a Jew? Jesus and all the Apostles observed the Sabbath. Paul wrote about it and the feasts and he also stated that one day is not above another. The Apostles were in the House of God almost daily; if not daily. Is that not why we are in the Word daily?! I know you don’t know me that well, but honestly from whom I have been taught by at a young age until adulthood, do you really think I would allow my family to be taken down a rabbit hole. For those who do not know how I do/ who I am, I am a researcher I do not follow blindly, I look in as many places as I can find and I do this on everything. Some may say well then you do not trust the man of God you are under, this could not be any further from the truth. If you say something and I will research it. If though my own findings you have spoken the truth, that only strengthens my belief in what you are saying is true and from God. The Bible does state not in these exact words; men lie, trick and deceive! So, in my opinion if you allow yourself to be blindly lead and not to look,study,research, or pray. Then you have chosen that course and I have chosen to seek the knowledge. Do I agree with everything nope but I will research and form my own opinion based on facts and the understanding that comes from God. Is that not what God has asked of us to do? #notablindfollower #wastoldtoresearch #notunderthelawofMoses #tencommandments #the4thmatters #youbothtaughtmethis

    • Crystal,

      Thanks for your questions regarding observing the Sabbath.

      Certainly, God rested on the Sabbath day in the story of Creation. However, God never gave a command to mankind to observe the Sabbath until the Law of Moses. God resting on the Sabbath pre-dated Moses, but no Sabbath command to man pre-dated Moses.

      I believe the command by God for man to observe the Sabbath was a covenant between God and “My people Israel.” I don’t believe it was a covenant with Gentile believers. This bears out by the absence in the New Testament of ANY command to Gentiles to observe the Sabbath. The absence of any mention of Sabbath in the Jerusalem Counsel’s ruling to the Gentiles (written by James, who was very much a Jew and pastored the church at Jerusalem) further confirms that it was a covenant between God and Israel, not Gentile believers. Certainly the earliest converts to Christianity (including the apostles) were Jewish and early in church history they considered themselves simply another sect of Judaism. These men had been observing the Sabbath their whole lives and felt no reason to change. They did not, however, place that conviction upon Gentile believers. As the church gradually transitioned from predominantly Jewish converts to predominately Gentile converts, observance of the Sabbath waned.

      The movement of public worship from Saturday to Sunday predated Constantine. As a celebration of the Resurrection, the outpouring of the Holy Ghost on the Day of Pentecost (which both happened on a Sunday), and as a means to distinguish the Gentile Christians from Judaism, the early church gradually moved to Sunday worship – but long before Constantine. Constantine and what would become the Catholic Church may have reiterated or confirmed Sunday worship, but they did not originate it. It is clearly documented that the early Acts Gentile Christians gathered to worship on Sunday.

      As Gentile Christians, I believe we DO honor the 4th commandment. I simply believe we do it differently than the Jew. The observance of the Sabbath for the Jew is a physical, literal observance of a particular day. Christian Gentiles do “Remember the Sabbath to keep it holy” – they just do it through acknowledging and celebrating that Jesus is our Sabbath and, when we are “IN CHRIST,” we have entered into His rest. I believe Gentile Christians actually observe the Sabbath in a GREATER way than the Jews did. Jesus said, “Come unto Me and I will give you rest [Sabbath].” Jesus is our Sabbath. So we do observe the Sabbath, we just do it differently – not by esteeming one day above another, but by trusting in Christ as our rest.

      Actually, those who insist on observing the Old Testament Sabbath are observing it differently than the Jews did! (Unless they are observing every command associated with it!) The scriptures teach that if we violate one part of the Law, we have violated ALL the Law. Most people who make an issue of Sabbath observance in the Gentile church are themselves picking and choosing which of the Sabbath commands they will observe. (I’ve never met one Gentile Christian who truly observes every Sabbath command.) So, in essence, they are observing Sabbath differently than the Jews did in the Old Testament, which leaves them no standing to judge others who observe Sabbath differently.

      Furthermore, the New Testament is clear in its admonishment not to esteem one day above another. I certainly have no problem if a Gentile Christian wants to have some special devotions or practices on the Sabbath. My problem is when a person says we are under a command to do so or that others who may gather on Sunday to worship are wrong. That violates Paul’s teaching concerning not judging one another concerning days of the week, etc.

      I hope this answers your questions. God bless you and your family.

      Pastor Ball