The Sabbath: Must We Regard One Day Over Another?

Exodus 20:8-11

The Sabbath: Must We Regard One Day Over Another?

We just studied the Sabbath together in our Growth Groups. I thought it might be helpful to give some of my insights and conclusions on the topic to help cultivate unity and avoid confusion.

There is a lot of liberty in how Christians understand their obligation to honor the Sabbath. Even so, there is no biblical reason to consider the Sabbath to have been transferred from the seventh day of the week (Saturday) to the first day of the week (Sunday). In the confessions this is often assumed to be the case. This quote from G. Campbell Morgan on the issue is revealing.

“The Sabbath is not an ideal of any dispensation of Divine dealings. It is universal in the purpose of God, and was part of the economy of time which waited for the birth of man. The change of day in the Christian dispensation from the seventh to the first is of great symbolic value, and although no Divine word was written commanding the change, the spiritual facts of Christianity altered it surely, yet without proclamation or noise” (emphasis added).

My rule of thumb is always to believe something “because the Bible tells me so,” and to not believe things that the Bible makes no “proclamation or noise” about. Seems like a good approach to me. The only biblical teaching on how to think about Sabbath days instructs believers to graciously allow one another to have freedom to regard all days the same (Romans 14:5), and not judge others who regard days differently (Romans 14:10; Colossians 2:16). The specifics of the Jewish Sabbaths were just a picture or shadow of certain truths (Colossians 2:17), of which Christ is the substance or reality (more on that later). 

What follows here is my detailed answer to Lesson 6, Question 2, in the Ten Commandments growth guide. Let me give you four reasons why I believe there is not an inherently moral nature to the keeping of a Sabbath.

1. Jesus taught that the Sabbath was given to be a benefit and blessing to mankind. 

When Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), He implies that there is not an eternal reflection of God’s holiness inherent to the Sabbath. We have been created to reflect the image and holiness of God. God did not “create” His image and then tell us to reflect it. Rather, everything about His holiness is eternally inherent to all that He is. The Sabbath, however, was created and established “for man.” 

2. The lack of a natural conscience for Sabbath keeping implies it is not inherently moral.

The Bible teaches that even Gentiles without the Law of Moses have a conscience (Romans 2:14-15). This conscience reveals moral truth and demands that we follow it. And so, almost every culture known to man has laws about murder, stealing, lying, and similar moral issues. There is not an example of a culture or society (that I know of) where the uninformed moral conscience was compelled to create a “seventh day rest” statute. The fact that we do not have this compulsion apart from law implies that it is not inherently moral. 

3. The third reason I do not believe there is an inherently moral nature to the Sabbath is that it was not established as a creation ordinance as is often assumed.

Many people believe the Sabbath began at creation, when God Himself rested on the seventh day. Ever since then, it is asserted, God’s faithful people have been observing some form of the Sabbath. Is this what the Genesis account teaches? 

Genesis 2:2-3 – “By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” (NASB) (emphasis added).

Note that only God is said to have rested on the seventh day, not Adam and Eve. After the fall of man into sin Adam is cursed with the pain and toil of physical work to sustain himself and his family. No mention is made there of any requirement to toil and sweat no more than six out of the seven days. In fact, you never read of any of God’s people keeping or talking about a Sabbath until after the Exodus from Egypt.

4. That is the fourth reason to suggest the Sabbath is not eternal and inherently moral—we do not see any of God’s people ever honoring a Sabbath prior to the giving of the Law of Moses.

The first time we see the Sabbath mentioned specifically (after God’s rest in Genesis 2) it is recorded in Exodus 16, after Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The people had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. They certainly didn’t get the Sabbath off during that time. In fact, God had to explain the idea of a day of rest to them (read Exodus 16:1-5, 16-30). They did not understand it. Without a practical understanding of what it meant, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather more manna (16:27). Why did they not understand? Perhaps their traditions had been so overshadowed by their captivity that the day of rest had been forgotten. It seems unlikely, however, that an entire population of overworked, oppressed slaves would forget that their God had ordained a day of rest for their blessing and benefit. If mankind inherently knew it had a “right” or an “obligation” to not work one day a week, perpetual slavery would not kill such a hope. It would only strengthen one’s desire to enjoy it.

So what was the Sabbath for? 

First, it was a sign of the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 31:13, 17), and therefore only fully functioned during that dispensation. Second, it pictured resting from our works in our justification (Hebrews 4:9-10). Third, like the rest in the Promised Land, the rest of the Sabbath pictured being delivered from the toil of sin to enjoy the eternal rest of heaven (Hebrews 4:2-8). Fourth, Jesus said it was given “for man,” in order to bless us with rest and time devoted solely to God. As a gift given for the blessing and benefit of His people Israel, we should see how rest and devotion can bless us as well. We should consider the ways in which this gift and blessing can also be ours by imitating the pattern of setting time aside for God.
We do this because we can benefit spiritually by it, not because we are obligated by law to do so. 

1. G. Campbell Morgan, The Ten Commandments, p. 48.

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