Editors’ note: 

This article is a part of a three-view forum on the Sabbath.

For centuries, the church has been divided over the continuing practice of the Sabbath and whether Sunday, the Lord’s Day, ought to be viewed as the Christian Sabbath. This is a complex debate largely because it requires thinking about the relationship between all of the biblical covenants across the entire canon.

All Christians agree that covenants are central to the Bible’s story, yet we differ on the precise way they’re related to one another.  

This is not a new debate. In the early church, the apostles wrestled with the implications of Christ’s work (Acts 10–11; Romans 9–11; Eph. 2:11–22; 3:1–13), especially against the errors of the Judaizers (Acts 15; Gal. 3–4). Today we continue to disagree over the newness of what Christ has achieved, how Old Testament promises are fulfilled in Christ, and the application of the Sabbath command to God’s new-covenant people.

All Christians agree that covenants are central to the Bible’s story, yet we differ on the precise way they’re related to one another.

Those who believe Sabbath observance continues usually argue three points: (1) the Sabbath is a creation ordinance and thus for all people and all times; (2) the Sabbath is reiterated in the Ten Commandments (“moral” law) of the old covenant (in contrast to the “civil” and “ceremonial” laws), which entails that the command continues until Christ returns; (3) although the Sabbath continues throughout all ages, it has shifted from Saturday to Sunday. 

Those—like me—who argue that the Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ argue three contrary points. 

1. The Sabbath is not a creation ordinance.

The creation covenant with Adam isn’t only foundational to all subsequent covenants—it also establishes truths that, through the progression of the covenants, reach their fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. One of these truths is God’s rest on the seventh day, the culmination of the creation week (Gen. 2:1–3) by which God establishes a pattern of working and resting. Note, however, that this day is not called the “Sabbath”; that there is no statement to the effect that Adam and Eve are to observe it, as is typical with ordinances; and that there’s no “morning and evening” description, as with the previous six days. Why is this important?

Textually and canonically, it’s best to interpret God’s “rest” as his entering into covenant enjoyment of his creation and, in Adam, with us. This emphasis is picked up later in Exodus 31:17, where it says that God rested and was “refreshed,” which conveys the sense that when God looked on his work, he delighted in it. In resting, God established a state which is blessed—and which he invited humans to enter. Patterned after the divine model, Adam was to subdue the earth and to rest the way God had rested. In this way, eschatology is built into the original creation (1 Cor. 15:45–46). The triune God created us for himself, and our ultimate purpose is to be in covenant relationship with him, and as God’s vice-regents, reign with him over a glorious creation. Yet tragically, Adam—our covenant head—disobeyed God and brought sin and death into the world (Gen. 2:15–17; 3:1–19; Rom. 5:12–21). Adam was unable to subdue the earth and thus failed to enter God’s rest. Thankfully, however, God promised to restore “rest” by the provision of a coming Redeemer (Gen. 3:15) who, as the Last Adam, will fulfill all that the first Adam failed to accomplish (Heb. 2:5–18). As the covenants progress, covenant “rest” is restored—but in a way that looks forward to its ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s work and the establishment of covenant relationship with his people (Eph. 5:32).

2. The Sabbath was first given under the old/Mosaic covenant.

The Sabbath command was first given to Israel, not to the patriarchs. This further confirms that it’s not a creation ordinance (Ex. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–15). Under the old covenant, the Sabbath is the covenant sign (Ex. 31:12–17), as was the rainbow for the Noahic (Gen. 9:12–17) and circumcision for the Abrahamic (Gen. 17:9–14). As God redeemed Israel in a mighty exodus, the Sabbath was given to the nation (Ex. 16:21-26). God demands complete love and devotion from Israel, and by obeying the Sabbath, Israel would experience physical rest and evidence their loyalty to him. Conversely, to disobey the Sabbath would result in the penalty of all sin—death (Ex. 31:14)—for not rendering God his rightful due (Gen. 2:15–17; Rom. 6:23). 

However, this wasn’t the Sabbath’s only purpose—it also instructed, revealed, and predicted something greater. In fact, two reasons are given for the Sabbath. First, it looks back to God’s rest in creation, which reminds Israel that she is in covenant relationship with God (Ex. 20:11), and that despite the entrance of sin into the world, God is restoring what was lost in creation by establishing the new creation (Gen. 3:15; Heb. 3:7–4:11). Second, the Sabbath also looks back to God’s work of redemption (Deut. 5:12–15), which becomes the pattern/type of a greater redemption to come in Christ (Isa. 11:1–16; 40:1–5; 49:1–55:13). In a variety of ways, then, the old covenant—including the Sabbath—typified and pointed forward to a greater “rest” to come.

Christians ‘obey’ the Sabbath by entering into the rest it typified and predicted—salvation rest in Christ.

So why does the Sabbath appear in the Ten Commandments? Because it’s the sign of the old covenant (Ex. 31:12–17). But doesn’t it still function as God’s eternal moral law for us today? I answer no for three reasons. First, Scripture views the old covenant as a unit, given to Israel and serving a specific role in God’s plan, and as an entire covenant, it’s brought to fulfillment in Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 5:3; Heb. 7:11–12; James 2:8–13). Second, Scripture teaches that according to God’s plan, the whole old covenant was temporary (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:15–4:7). Third, Scripture teaches that Christians are no longer “under the law” as a covenant, since we are now under the new covenant (Rom. 6:14–15; 1 Cor. 9:20–21; Gal. 4:4–5; 5:13–18); nonetheless, the Mosaic law functions for us, along with the Sabbath command, as Scripture (2 Tim. 3:15–17). 

As we apply the Ten Commandments, then, we must think first about how they functioned within the old covenant, and then how they apply to us in light of Christ’s fulfillment. No doubt, nine of the Ten Commandments are emphasized in the new covenant, since they reflect the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor—something true since God’s creation of us for himself and one another. But this doesn’t mean we simply apply the commandments to us apart from their fulfillment in Christ. Regarding the Sabbath command specifically, we must first set it within its covenantal location and then observe how it functioned not only as a command/sign to Israel (which no longer applies to us), but also as a type of the greater salvation rest offered in Christ (which certainly applies to us!). In this way, Christians “obey” the Sabbath by entering into the rest it typified and predicted—salvation rest in Christ.

3. The Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ and the new covenant.

We see further confirmation of this in the New Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus inaugurates the kingdom, ratifies the new covenant, and fulfills in himself what the Sabbath typified and pointed toward (along with all the typological patterns from the Old Testament). As the central figure in redemptive history (Matt. 11:13), Jesus invites us to find our “rest/salvation” in him (Matt. 11:28–30; John 5:1–30). In many ways, our Lord is restating the Sabbath command—but now in terms of its fulfillment in him. Why? Because he is the divine Son made flesh (John 1:1, 14–18), the Lord of glory, and, yes, the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1–13). In Christ, the last Adam, his work is now complete due to his covenantal obedience for us. In him salvation has finally come, and God’s primal rest is realized—in a far greater way—in the inauguration of the new creation by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (Heb. 2:5–18; cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).

Don’t the Ten Commandments still function as God’s eternal moral law for us today? I answer no for three reasons.

As God’s new-covenant people are established, it’s hard to find any Sabbath command reiterated in the New Testament (Rom. 14:5–6; Col. 2:16–17)—or mention of the sin of breaking the Sabbath. In fact, no mention is made regarding Sabbath observance or transfer at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:22–29). Probably the greatest evidence of this abrogation is found in the book of Hebrews, which gives an extended discussion of the “rest/Sabbath” theme (Heb. 3:7–4:11). In using Psalm 95, the author argues that the Old Testament looked forward to a greater rest that it typified but never realized. Even Joshua, who led Israel into the land of “rest,” never provided their final “rest” (Heb. 4:8; cf. Josh. 21:43). No doubt this was important for the Israelites, but it was not the full creation rest of Genesis 2:2.

As God’s plan unfolded through the covenants, God’s rest in creation—lost in the fall and somewhat recovered in the Old Testament—continued to look forward to a future day (a “Sabbath rest”) that has now come in Christ. No doubt the fullness of salvation rest is still future (Heb. 13:14), when he returns and consummates what he began. Yet even now, just as we have already “come” to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22), so we can enter into our salvation rest, typified by the Sabbath (Heb. 4:3, 9–11).

As Christians, then, we obey the Sabbath command by ceasing from our works, placing our trust in Christ, and starting to live into what it means to be his new-covenant people as we await his glorious return. 

What About the Lord’s Day?

Does this mean there’s no day of worship set aside under the new covenant? No. There’s plenty of evidence in the New Testament that the first day of the week, resurrection Sunday, is viewed as the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10). In fact, the resurrection occurs on the eighth day, the day both on which the new creation commences and on which, later at Pentecost, the Spirit is poured out. On this day the church gathers for worship. In fact, the author who exhorts Christians to make sure they’ve entered into the realities of the new covenant (Heb. 3:7–4:11) is the same one who commands them to assemble as a church (Heb. 10:25). Why is the Lord’s Day prescriptive for us? Because it follows the New Testament’s pattern of churches gathering to celebrate the risen Lord.

Jesus calls us to find our ‘rest/salvation’ in him. Why? Because he is the divine Son made flesh, the Lord of glory, and the Lord of the Sabbath.

Nevertheless, we should not view the Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath. Under the old covenant, the Sabbath functioned in a specific way for Israel; under the new covenant, though, the Lord’s Day signifies what the Sabbath pointed forward to—the greater salvation rest that has now come in Christ. In the New Testament, there are no specific regulations about the day, other than the exhortation to gather with God’s people. In fact, depending on where we live in the world, Christians may have to work on Sunday. (Not every country is afforded the luxury of not working on Sundays—something enjoyed by many Western countries.) But regardless of where we live, Christians are still to gather to worship our triune God on the Lord’s Day, as evidence that we are part of the new creation in Christ, longing for the fullness of salvation rest in a new heavens and new earth.

In the meantime, we gather as God’s people, to worship and adore and cry with the church in all ages: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

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