Q: What does God's Word say about the Christian keeping the Sabbath?
A: An article by our founder, Theodore H. Epp, investigates this volatile issue in the Church today:
The Sabbath or the Lord's Day-Which?
Some religious groups teach that it is necessary to keep the Sabbath in order to be saved. They insist that we are still under the Law. Yet, for reasons not divulged, they assume the right to remove some of the restrictions laid down in the Bible with regard to keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest. So while they contend that the keeping of the day is incumbent on the Christian, they change the nature of it by their own authority. This all adds to the confusion surrounding this annoying problem, for which the only satisfactory solution is found in the Bible.
The first reference to the Sabbath is found in Genesis 2:3: "Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made." The root meaning of the words "Sabbath" and "rest," as referred to in Genesis 2:3, is "to cease." After having spent six days in His creative work, God ceased from His labors. The words "evening" and "morning," however, are missing in the description of this Sabbath day. This would indicate that the first Sabbath was a continuous rest, or a continuous ceasing from labor, until the time when man fell into sin. Then God once again began His labors in creating new creatures in Christ Jesus.
It cannot be overemphasized, however, that this was God's rest. No obligation on man's part to keep the Sabbath is even implied in this passage.
2500 Years of Silence
After this first mention of the Sabbath, there is silence for 2500 years; not a word is given concerning it. God instituted the covenant of the Law 430 years after He had made the covenant of grace with Abraham.
The first mention of the Sabbath since the time when God ceased from His labors on the seventh day is found in Exodus 16:23: "Then he said to them, 'This is what the LORD has said: 'Tomorrow is a Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake today, and boil what you will boil; and lay up for yourselves all that remains, to be kept until morning.''"
Reference is also made to this in Nehemiah: "You came down also on Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them just ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments. You made known to them Your holy Sabbath, and commanded them precepts, statutes and laws, by the hand of Moses Your servant" (9:13-14).
In Exodus 20:8-11 the Sabbath law is made a part of the Ten Commandments: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it."
Why did God not mention the Sabbath during those 2500 years? The answer is evident when the purpose for which the Sabbath was given is realized. Exodus 31:13-17 must be carefully considered: "Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: 'Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.'"
Ezekial 20:12 says, "Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them." The Sabbath was especially instituted as a sign of separation for Israel. Any person of Israel not keeping the Sabbath was to be cut off from his people.
Since it was instituted as a special sign for Israel, it could be enforced only as long as Israel was in the land of Palestine as a nation and was on proper terms with God. According to the foreknowledge of God, the Israelites were to be scattered soon after the crucifixion of Christ, and the Book of Galatians teaches that the Law was given by Moses until Christ died: "What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator" (3:19). Even though Israel is back in the land now, she has not recognized her God; consequently, the sign-the Sabbath-is not yet enforced.
Christ and the Sabbath
Did Christ keep the Sabbath? Certainly He did. Some Scripture passages will show why Jesus kept the Sabbath on earth.
In the first place, John 1:11 says that "He came to His own"-that is, the Jews. He came for His own-the Jews. He was made under the Law and was part of the nation of Israel. The Law was not yet set aside.Galatians 4:4 tells that He came to His own: "But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law."
Jesus, being a Jew and living in the time when the Law was still in force, had to keep the Law, too, including the law of the Sabbath. He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it: "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled" (Matt. 5:17-18). As far as any human being is concerned, Christ is the only One who ever kept the Law perfectly. This proves His sinlessness.
The four Gospels, which record the history of Christ's life on earth, mention the Sabbath at least 50 times. It was observed by all Jews because until the crucifixion, the disciples, as well as Christ, were still under the Law. Not until He cried, "It is finished" (John 19:30) was the Law completely fulfilled. But notice-and this is very important-Christ is not spoken of once as keeping the Sabbath after the crucifixion. Instead, He left us the example of the Lord's Day.
Paul and the Sabbath
What about Paul? He observed the Sabbath with the Jews until he turned completely to reaching the Gentiles. In Acts 18:4-6 Paul cleared himself of his responsibility toward his people, the Jews, and turned to the Gentiles: "And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy had come from Macedonia, Paul was constrained by the Spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. But when they opposed him and blasphemed, he shook his garments and said to them, 'Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.'"
Before chapter 18 the Sabbath is mentioned eight times in the Book of the Acts. The reason for this is that Paul visited the Jew first and, of course, that was most easily done on the Sabbath, for the Jews kept the Sabbath. But when he met with the church, he always did this on the first day of the week. After Acts 18 the Sabbath is not mentioned once in the Scriptures, with the exception of Colossians 2:16: "Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths." Here it is merely mentioned, showing that it has been abolished in view of the Dispensation of Grace.
It is also noted that the other apostles observed the Sabbath together with the Jews, but they did this only when they went to the places where the Jews were. After Acts 18 we do not find another mention of the Sabbath in all of Scripture, with the one exception mentioned above. Although the apostles met with the Jews on the Sabbath day to be as Paul said, "I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1 Cor. 9:22), when they met with Christians, or the church, they met on the first day of the week (Luke 24:1; John 20:19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10).
From the above statements it can be clearly seen that the apostles, including Paul, understood very well the place and purpose of the Sabbath. It was a sign for the Jews, beginning with Moses and ending with the crucifixion of Christ. It is interesting to note that once the Jews are regathered and recognize God as their King, the Sabbath will be observed again (Ezek. 36:16-38). Isaiah 56:2-3 also speaks of this time: "Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who lays hold on it; who keeps from defiling the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil. Do not let the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD speak, saying, 'The LORD has utterly separated me from His people'; nor let the eunuch say, 'Here I am, a dry tree.'"
Since the members of His Body, the Church, are considered by Him to be neither Jew nor Gentile, the Sabbath is not for their observance. They are new creatures in Christ Jesus: "For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of division between us, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace." (Eph. 2:14-15).
As we have seen, the Sabbath in God's plan concerns only Israel. Note these truths: (1) the Sabbath law was given in Exodus 16-2500 years after creation; (2) it was given as a sign to Israel (Ex. 31:12-18); (3) since Israel is scattered, the Sabbath is not now observed; the Law was finished, according to Galatians 3:19, in Christ; (4) when the Jews are reestablished as God's earthly nation, the Sabbath will again be observed. Could there be a simpler explanation than this?
Special Restrictions of the Sabbath Law
There are certain facets of the Sabbath law that must be considered. First, a man was not allowed to leave his home. "See! For the LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day" (Ex. 16:29).
Second, a man was not even allowed to work or to build a fire: "Then Moses gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together, and said to them, 'These are the words which the LORD has commanded you to do: Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations on the Sabbath day" (35:1-3).
"Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, 'The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.' So, as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died" (Num. 15:32-36).
Since God gave the commandment of the Sabbath to Israel in the land of Palestine, which has a warm climate, it was very practical. The law which prohibited building a fire on the Sabbath would not be practical for people living in certain climates, because they could not very easily go without heat in the winter.
But far more crucial is the fact that those who attempt to keep God's Sabbath, which was meant for Israel, immediately place themselves under the curse of the Law. Galatians 3:10 makes this clear: "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.'"
James 2:10 states, "For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all." If a person fails to keep all of the Law, he is under that curse. Anyone in this category would do well to admit his sinfulness and to come under God's grace, for that is his only hope.
The keeping of the Law is an impossibility to man in the flesh; no one can be justified before God through it. "Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law" (Gal. 3:21). Only God's grace can save us (Eph. 2:8-9). Salvation is not the reward for a holy life but the gift of God to a sinner deserving judgment.
The Law was given to show the exceeding sinfulness of sin (Rom. 3:20; 7:13). To confess that salvation by Law is unattainable by man humbles him but exalts the holiness of the Law. On the other hand, to claim salvation by Law-keeping exalts man but lowers the righteousness of the Law.
God has provided only one way of salvation: "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
The So-Called Christian Sabbath
This naturally brings up another question: Which day, then, is the Sabbath? Saturday, of course. There is no such thing as a "Christian Sabbath." No one has a right to call the Lord's Day the Christian Sabbath. Too many fellow believers are unconsciously and ignorantly referring to it in this way, and for this reason there is much confusion.
What day, then, should Christians set aside? There is no commandment given to Christians in this area. Every day of the week belongs to God. The idea of worshiping God one day in seven, whether it be the first or the seventh, and then living for self the rest of the week is a grievous evil existing today. People often think that they can go to church one day of the week, pray and sing a few hymns piously, and then live for the Devil the rest of the time. Every day is the Lord's, and Christians owe Him their worship and devotion as much on Monday as on Saturday or Sunday.
The Christian's Day of Worship
Is there a day which believers should set aside to worship the Lord? There is one day-the first day of the week. That is the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, and it is also the day He chose to meet with His disciples after His resurrection. This was not a Sabbath day, or a rest day, it was a day of ceaseless activity. The Lord Jesus was very busy on the resurrection day. The false conception of so many is that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, and since the Sabbath is a day of rest, the Sabbath laws are applied to Sunday. This has resulted in untold harm.
The average Christian, instead of making the Lord's Day one of service, has made it one of rest and feasting. That is not the purpose of the Lord's Day. That is merely a perversion of the Jewish Sabbath day. Christians need to wake up and to grasp the meaning of this resurrection day. Souls need to be rescued from darkness, and only the gospel of Jesus Christ can accomplish this. "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin" (James 4:17).
One might say, "But I don't dare mention that in my church; it would only stir up a lot of trouble." That is true. It is hard to stand against traditions, but I challenge each believer to yield himself to the Lord in this matter.
Thus, by the example of Christ Himself and later by the apostles, we see that the first day of the week, known as the Lord's Day, was especially set apart as a day of service for God.
Some seem to think that it is worse for one to sin on Sunday than on any other day of the week. I believe that this is wrong. The Bible teaches that it is displeasing to God for one to yield to the Devil on any day of the week. Christians must live so that their consciences will be void of offense before God every day. In addition, they can make Sunday a day of special worship and service