A tentative step towards a conclusion on the Sabbath

I had become a little disaffected with discussion on the Sabbath. The choice was often presented between sabbatarianism strictly tied to Sunday and a fencing off of appropriate ‘Sunday activities’ or the abolition of the sabbath altogether leading to a much freer Sunday. I know there are shades of these views and it is not fair to characterise it all as legalism v antinomianism (as some seek to do). It is only to say I found neither position entirely compelling. To that end, I am taking my own tentative steps towards a conclusion on the Christian sabbath. I must stress that these are cautious moves towards a view but I increasingly lean toward what is written here.


The non-sabbatarian places great store by the argument that the fourth commandment is never reiterated in the New Testament. Nevertheless, it is equally nowhere revoked. Jesus states ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath (Mark 2:27, ESV)’. In this context, Jesus was rebuking the Pharisees for placing unbearable burdens on those who sought to keep the sabbath command. However, he did not revoke the fourth commandment but rather stated that the sabbath existed for man’s benefit, seeking to free it from the legalism which had been placed upon it by the Pharisees. It is worth noting that elsewhere, Jesus praises the Pharisees teaching but states that they are hypocritical in what they practice: 

The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you – but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger (Matthew 23:2-4, ESV).

Jesus says that the teaching of the Pharisees is correct, however, their practice is hypocritical and they overburden people with rules added to the law. The Pharisees certainly taught that the sabbath stood and Jesus never contradicts this assertion, he only criticises the manner in which they sought to keep the sabbath. Further to this, in Matthew 12:3-8 Jesus gives examples of things that are lawful on the sabbath, without revoking the command itself, leading to his final conclusion in Matthew 12:12 ‘It is lawful to do good on the sabbath (ESV)’. It would appear that, far from revoking the sabbath command, Jesus re-enforced it in its original form, freeing it from the legalistic trappings of the Pharisees. I therefore conclude that the sabbath must still stand as it is upheld and re-enforced by Jesus and is nowhere else in the New Testament revoked.


Given that the sabbath must remain, at least in some form, what elements of the sabbath continue. The original commandment in Exodus 20:8-11 sets down two central aspects. Firstly, in Exodus 20:9-10, it specifies that we are to take one day in seven as rest. Secondly, in Exodus 20:8, 10, we are to set the day aside as holy. Both Exodus 31:13-17 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 do not add any extra criteria to the command other than the two elements already mentioned. We must now consider how these two elements are to be met today.


The traditional sabbatarian argues that we are compelled to keep the sabbath on the first day of the week. They argue the move from Saturday to Sunday is attested to by the fact that Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2 both suggest that a meeting was held on the first day of the week and we should follow the example of the early church. However, it should be noted that it is nowhere commanded that Christians should meet on the first day of the week (Sunday). Furthermore, the concept of weeks is not mentioned. The command is simply to work six, rest one. Every seventh day should be a sabbath. Moreover, the apostle Paul states ‘One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom 14:5, ESV)’. The word ‘alike’ is not in the original text and may convey a meaning not intended by the apostle. Here, Paul is not stating that the sabbath has been repealed but rather that every day is to be consecrated to the Lord. Ultimately, he suggests that all days are now acceptable for worship, all days are ‘holy’. If this is the case, and there is no scriptural command for us to meet on the first day of the week, we must conclude that we are not compelled to have our sabbath on one particular day of the week as all days are now consecrated and holy. 


Whilst we are not tied to one particular day of the week, the principle of work six, rest one still remains. This raises the very real issue of that which constitutes work on the sabbath. Jesus’ statement, ”The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath (Mark 2:27, ESV)’, helps us deal with this issue. The Pharisees’ were arguing that, by plucking heads of corn as they were walking through a cornfield, the disciples were working and thus profaned the sabbath. Bearing in mind the context, and Jesus subsequent statement, we can draw two central conclusions. Firstly, a weekly rest is beneficial to us (‘The sabbath was made for man’). Secondly, legalistic rules are burdensome and detrimental (‘not man for the sabbath’). These two statements should form the backbone of that which we determine as work on the sabbath. In the first instance, we should err away from legalistic statements of that which does and does not constitute work. Secondly, whatever we do should be a rest to us. Naturally, this will differ from one person to the next. What one finds restful another may not and what one does for work throughout the week another will not. Rather than defining and outlawing particular jobs, tasks and activities we are better placed applying the two principles of avoiding legalism and seeking rest to our own situation. In this we should adopt the apostle Paul’s stance: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master he stands or falls.(Romans 14:4, ESV)’.


The final area to explore is how we relate the sabbath to others. One pertinent question is whether we should cause others to work on our sabbath? As already mentioned, we are no longer tied to one particular day of rest, the principle remains work six, rest one. As such, we are not precluded from using services and shops on our sabbath day for two main reasons. Firstly, if we take our sabbath on a Sunday somebody else may take theirs on another day of the week. Therefore, if we enter a shop on our sabbath, we are not causing anybody else to profane their sabbath as they will likely be taking another day off in lieu which, by default, becomes their day of rest. Secondly, if we begin to insist that others working on our sabbath is wrong we hit a number of inconsistencies and find ourselves creating legalistic rules to govern others. For example, we find ourselves excusing particular behaviours and activities purely because we understand or sympathise with them. In reality, it is acceptable for people to work on our sabbath as they can take another day off in lieu as their day of rest. We can therefore conclude that it is not wrong for us to use services and allow people to work on our designated sabbath day.


The second issue regarding how we relate the sabbath to others is whether we must meet together as Christians on a particular sabbath day. The writer of Hebrews says ‘let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25, ESV)’. Clearly we are supposed to continue to meet together as Christians and this should not be neglected. However, it has already been shown that all days are consecrated, holy and acceptable for the worship of God and we are not tied to one particular day on which to have our sabbath. As such, whilst we are to continue meeting together we are not tied to a particular day for such meetings. Therefore, if our church is full of people unable to meet on a Sunday we have liberty to meet another day of the week. Equally, even if we choose to meet on a Sunday we have liberty to meet more than once a week on other days. We should continue to worship with one another but we are not limited to a particular day or a particular number of times a week.


To conclude, it seems apparent that the sabbath command remains. Nevertheless, all days are now to be consecrated to the Lord and we are thus not tied to one particular day of the week but are rather called to work six, rest one. Further to this, we are to avoid legalistic statements of what does and does not constitute work and should seek to do that which is restful on our sabbath day. This is a matter of personal conscience between each individual and the Lord – that which one finds restful another may not and that which one considers work another will not. We have liberty to do that which is restful on our sabbath and we are free to use shops and services as others may take another day of rest from ourselves. We also have liberty to meet and worship together on any day of the week and are not tied to particular days or a specific number of times per week.

4 comments

  1. This is very clear and helpful Steve – thanks for posting! It's an issue I have never really got to grips with, but I certainly agree with the principles you set out. Hope Manchester is treating you well?

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  2. Hi Heather – This is an issue that I've been thinking about for the last 5 or 6 years and never really formed a decent view on it. In the past I flip-flopped between being very hardline and very lax and found neither to be particularly scriptural or consistent. I've spent the last month or so reading various sabbatarian and non-sabbatarian articles alongside specific passages of scripture to formulate (what I think is) a somewhat more helpful and consistent view.

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  3. I can relate to that! If you want a new challenge, perhaps you could do the same for the subject of 'Providence' – what does it really mean?

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