Must Christians Obey the
Sabbath Commandment?

By George Desnoyers

September 18, 2001


The vast majority of Christian churches have their primary weekly worship services on Sunday. A small number of Christians, primarily composed of Seventh-Day Adventists and Seventh-Day Baptists, continues to obey the Sabbath day commandment, albeit, in terms of allowed activities, far less restrictively than the Israelites came to obey it. Generally, the Sabbath-keepers maintain that all Christians are under an obligation to keep the Sabbath commandment. Sunday worshippers, on the other hand, claim that there is no such obligation for Christians. Which group is correct?  As will be seen below, much of the debate over this issue centers around Colossians 2:16-17, a text that Sunday worshippers say relieves Christians from any obligation to keep the Sabbath. Although Colossians 2:16-17 is a critical text, the debate over the Sabbath involves some other matters as well.

The change to worshipping on the first day of the week appears to have been made in the early days of the Christian church (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2). Four main reasons are frequently offered to explain why Christians did not, and do not, feel under any obligation to obey the Old Testament Sabbath.

First, Paul taught that the Sabbath had been a merely a shadow of what was to come, namely Christ (Colossians 2:16-17). As the Sabbath had reminded of creation (Exodus 20:8-11), the new day of worship would focus on Jesus, the creator. That Jesus is the creator may be seen from John 1:3, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:16, and Hebrews 1:1-2. Worshipping the creator is more important than remembering creation.

When you have the reality that was producing a (fore)shadow, there is no longer any reason to focus on the shadow. When you see a shadow coming around the corner of a building, you might use it to learn something about the shape of a person still hidden by the building, but coming along, whose shadow it is. But, when the person him/herself comes around the corner, are you still going to focus on the shadow? That wouldn’t make sense. Shadows distort. They tell you something about the shape of a person who is coming along, but often not much. When you have the reality, the shadow loses its usefulness. Accordingly, the early Christians focused on the reality of Christ, and not the shadow. Their worship service was primarily a remembrance and celebration of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, teachings, and example of Jesus.

Second, the Sabbath not only looked forward to the creator, Jesus. It also looked forward to a rest available to the followers of Christ (Hebrews 4:1-11).  Christians rest by ceasing to rely upon their own works, and by resting in, or relying upon, the work of Christ (Hebrews 4:7-11). In the midst of this more important rest, there is no longer reason to focus on its shadow.

To summarize these first two reasons, the focus of Christians is on the reality, Christ, and not on the shadow, the Old Testament Sabbath. Christ is the Creator, and He is the one in whom we rest from our own works. It should not be considered strange or sinful that the focus of Christians is different than that of Old Testament saints who did not know Christ. Our knowledge of Christ, and His constant presence in our lives, make it unnecessary to keep the Old Testament Sabbath. Christians have no obligation to do so.

Third, the other reasons for the Sabbath that are mentioned in the Old Testament, to remind of the deliverance from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15), and to serve as a sign of God's perpetual covenant and relationship with the Jews (Exodus 31:13,16), are not reasons that Gentile Christians found, or find, compelling.

Fourth, the humanitarian aspect of the Sabbath, i.e. its value in serving the needs of mankind, is equally well provided for regardless the particular day of the week chosen to be the day of rest.

Let’s look at some of the issues raised by Sabbath-keepers, and how Sunday worshippers answer them.

Christian adherents to worshipping on the seventh day often say that the Sabbath in Colossians 2:16-17 does not refer to the regular weekly Sabbath. They say it refers to other [annual] Sabbath feasts that could be dropped because they were only ceremonial and not imposed by a commandment. Advocates of worshipping on Sunday feel there is nothing to support that notion, and present the following arguments:

First, there are fifty-nine New Testament references to "Sabbath" or "Sabbaths," found in fifty-five New Testament verses. There is no reason to single Colossians 2:16 out as the only New Testament occurrence referring to something other than the weekly Sabbath. These facts alone reveal a fatal flaw in any theory that alleges that Colossians 2:16 refers to something other than the weekly Sabbath, and that the weekly Sabbath is enjoined on all believers forever. It reveals a fatal flaw because it makes God, who inspired Paul to write Colossians 2:16-17, a poorer author than even a poor uninspired human author. Even a poor uninspired human author would have known enough to qualify the word "Sabbath" in Colossians 2:16 if anything other than the weekly Sabbath were meant.

Second, the context of Colossians 2:16-17 is clear. Paul was arguing against attempts of Judaizing Christians to impose the observation of Jewish rituals on Gentile Christians. Within that context, Paul declared that Christians were free from the obligations of the Sabbath. Particularly in light of an ongoing debate over the arguments of the Judaizing Christians, how likely is it that the words of Colossians 2:16-17 would be a part of God's Word to us if the commandment to keep the weekly Sabbath were enjoined on all people forever?

Third, God instituted the Sabbath as a day of rest. Christians rest from their own works through belief in, and reliance upon, the work of Christ (Hebrews 4:1-11). Early Christians considered the resurrection and ascension of Jesus to have shown ratification and acceptance by God of the works of Jesus, all that Jesus had said and done. The early church’s worship service became in large part a memorial of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Both those events were understood as having occurred on the first day of the week. It seemed appropriate to Christians to celebrate worship on the day of the week associated with those events.

[Today the ascension of Christ is celebrated as having occurred on a Thursday, based on the forty days mentioned in Acts 1:3. Early Christians could count just about as well as we can, but they viewed the forty days of Acts 1:3 as merely a round number. They associated the ascension with Sunday because of John 20:17 and Luke 24. In the early church, all the events of Luke 24 were treated as if they occurred on the same day, as a careful reading of that chapter still seems to suggest today. So, for the early Christians, the ascension was treated as if it occurred on the same day as the resurrection, a Sunday.]

Fourth, there is a formula used in verse 16 that is frequently seen in Scripture.  A large number of commentators believe it is intentional and significant that many Scriptural verses explicitly refer to annual, monthly, and weekly events in order to stress inclusiveness. Study, for example, 1 Chronicles 23:31, 2 Chronicles 2:4; 8:13; 31:3; Ezekiel 45:17; and Hosea 2:11. Colossians 2:16 fits the pattern observed in those verses by including references to annual ("festival"), monthly ("new moon"), and weekly ("Sabbath day") events.

If the word "Sabbath" in Colossians 2:16 is understood to refer to annual Sabbath feasts, as adherents of seventh-day worship allege, then the verse would read (and be interpreted) this way: "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival (an annual event), a New Moon celebration (a monthly event) or a Sabbath day (an annual event)." (NIV) Under that interpretation, annual Sabbath feasts would be mentioned twice. They would be covered under "a religious festival," and then again by the phrase, "a Sabbath day." This would not only be redundant; it would be a literary formula unique to Scripture. From this, it seems clear - Colossians 2:16 refers to the weekly Sabbath.

            There are some Sabbath-keepers who agree with Sunday worshippers that Colossians 2:16 refers to the weekly Sabbath. But they maintain that the Sabbath issue addressed in Colossians 2:16-17 relates not to whether the Sabbath is kept, but rather to how the Sabbath is kept. In other words, the verses should be understood this way: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to [how you keep] a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These things are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Sunday worshippers disagree. They maintain the words of Colossians 2:16-17 are clear in themselves, and that Paul is maintaining that the Sabbath itself, and not the manner of keeping it, served as a shadow of Christ.

            There is another argument frequently made by Sabbath-keepers. It is that the Ten Commandments are a part of the Moral Law, law that applies to everyone. These Sabbath-keepers hold that the Moral Law can never change because it is a reflection of the character of God. They say that even Adam and Eve kept the Sabbath, even while they were in the Garden of Eden. That Adam and Eve worked in the Garden of Eden, and presumably were able to rest from their work, can be seen from Genesis 2:15.

Sunday worshippers usually agree that there is such a thing as an unchangeable Moral Law, but hold that the Sabbath Commandment is not a part of it. They feel the Sabbath was a ceremonial remembrance. In addition, they say that, whether the Eden story is literal or figurative, Genesis 2:15 does not present Adam and Eve as working in the Garden in the same sense as we think of work. Work, as a taxing endeavor, did not precede the fall, but was a consequence of it (Genesis 3:17-19). According to most Sunday worshippers, Scripture is silent with regard to whether Adam and Eve rested from their non-taxing kind of work on the Sabbath.

Also, the Eden story presents the Garden as a place where Adam and Eve were in regular communion with God. God’s presence was with them in the Garden.  After Adam and Eve sinned, they tried to hide from God (Genesis 3:8). So, some Sunday worshippers believe there was no need for Adam and Even to attend to a ceremonial remembrance of creation when they were experiencing a face-to-face relationship with the Creator, and that therefore a regular Edenic Sabbath ought not to be presumed. According to these Sunday worshippers, the Sabbath was instituted during the time of Moses, or later (and then moved backward to the time of Moses through redactions in the Jewish holy writings, redactions for which many Scripture scholars have provided evidence).

Some Sabbath-keepers argue that the word “remember,” in “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” (Exodus 20:8 - NIV) is evidence that the commandment was instituted at an earlier time. They say, “How can you remember something unless it were already in existence?”

With regard to the word “remember,” Sunday worshippers answer that the Ten Commandments were being enjoined on the Israelites for future observance. Therefore, the meaning of the commandment is, “From this point on, remember to keep the Sabbath day holy.”  The commandment itself says nothing about any prior existence of a Sabbath commandment or practice.

However, Sunday worshippers do acknowledge that Scripture, whether or not as a result of redactions, does present the Sabbath as having been regularly observed prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments. This can be seen from Exodus 26:22-30, a text dealing with God’s provision of manna for the Seventh day, and the directions for collecting it. But this text is still dealing with the time of the Israelites' journey in the wilderness, and doesn't say anything about a regular observance of the Sabbath during the Egyptian captivity or earlier. As far as the regular observance of a weekly Sabbath is concerned, what we can say definitely is that Scripture traces it back to the time of Moses. We may guess about a regular Sabbath in earlier times, but Scripture is silent on it.

But, to Sunday worshippers, all the arguments about Eden, and the time before Moses is moot. Even if the Sabbath had been regularly observed in Eden, and throughout the entire Old Testament period, that fact would not speak to any requirement for Christians to keep the Sabbath commandment today. Colossians 2:16-17 tells us the Sabbath was a shadow of a reality that was to come. Verse 17 says, “…the reality, however, is found in Christ.” When you have the reality, there is no longer a need to attend to the shadow.