Rethinking the Sabbath

Rethinking the Sabbath January 7, 2021

Those who have read my books Revise Us Again, Jesus: A Theography, and From Eternity to Here, are aware that those who follow Jesus Christ are not under the Law. Instead, we’ve been given the Spirit of the living God who fulfills the Law in and through us.

Consequently, the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament era have been done away with in Christ. The New Testament is clear that those laws were merely “shadows” pointing to Jesus.

That said, those who have not read the aforementioned books sometimes write us and ask, “Are Christians obligated to keep the Sabbath like the Old Testament Jews were?”

In this post, I will answer that question in some detail.

In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul actually answers this question. He writes,

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

In this passage, Paul mentions several Old Testament ordinances and warns us against judging one another concerning their observance.

He argues that because the ordinances are shadows that have been fulfilled in Christ, we must not allow anyone to judge us concerning them.

Biblically speaking, a shadow is an illustration of an aspect of Christ. Old Testament shadows are usually physical people, events, stories, or ordinances that typify spiritual things relating to Jesus.

Just as a physical shadow resembles the physical object in which it reflects, a biblical shadow resembles the spiritual things that Christ has provided for us in the New Covenant. For example, the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb was a shadow of the Lord Jesus Christ, the real Lamb of God (see 1 Cor. 5:7).

Therefore, we no longer sacrifice lambs because the shadow of the real Lamb has been fulfilled in Christ.

The principle of biblical shadows dictates that when the reality of the shadow appears, the actual shadow is no longer kept.

Hebrews 10:1 states that the Law (that is, the first five books of the Old Testament known as “the Torah”) contains many shadows.

In our book Jesus: A Theography, Leonard Sweet and I trace numerous Old Testament shadows that are often ignored, explaining how they are fulfilled in Christ.

Sabbaths, New Moons, and Feasts

The five shadows Paul mentions in Colossians 2:16 are the ordinances of 1) meats, 2) drinks, 3) festivals, 4) new moons, and 5) Sabbath days.

All of these ordinances are contained in the Law of Moses. The first two relate to eating (Heb. 9:10), while the last three refer to the keeping of sacred days.

In this post, we will pay specific attention to the ordinances of Sabbaths, new moons, and festivals.

Colossians 2:16-17 settles the question regarding the nature of the Sabbath, and its demand. If the Sabbaths mentioned in Colossians 2:16 refer to the seventh day Sabbaths, then the passage clearly teaches that the seventh day (the Sabbath) is a shadow which has been fulfilled in Christ, and we are not obligated to keep the shadow.

However, some have suggested that the Sabbaths referred to in this passage do not refer to the seventh day Sabbaths, but to the Sabbaths of the yearly feasts mentioned in Leviticus 23. In other words, they say the text is talking about the festival Sabbaths.


In order to determine which Sabbaths this passage is speaking of, let’s take a closer look at the last three ordinances mentioned in the passage, i.e., Sabbaths, new moons, and festivals.

The Greek word for festivals is heorte which means feasts or feast days. Therefore, festivals refer to the seven feasts found in Leviticus 23.

These feasts are: 1) the feast of Passover, 2) the feast of Unleavened Bread, 3) the feast of Firstfruits, 4) the feast of Pentecost, 5) the feast of Trumpets, 6) the Day of Atonement, and 7) the feast of Tabernacles.

On these feast days, Israel was to rest, assemble, and give offerings. Because these were rest days, they are also called Sabbaths.

The new moons were monthly celebrations accompanied by sacrifices and offerings. The new moons were kept once a month.

Lastly, the Sabbath was a weekly day of rest and offerings. The Sabbath was the seventh day.

Now look at the passage again:

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Since Paul has already mentioned the feast days of Leviticus 23 using the word “festivals,” it makes no sense for Paul to repeat himself by referring to the festivals again and calling them “a Sabbath day.”

In addition, the fact that the seventh day Sabbaths are weekly is significant. In Colossians 2, Paul’s argument is a continuous flow.

Paul explains that Christ has fulfilled the entire spectrum of Hebrew sacred days, that is, the yearly (festivals), the monthly (new moons), and the weekly (the Sabbath).

If we say that the Sabbath in this passage refers to the festivals, this flow is broken, and we charge Paul with being needlessly redundant.

Nevertheless, by comparing the Old Testament passages that Paul so frequently drew from in his teachings, we see further evidence that the Sabbath in Colossians 2 must refer to the weekly Sabbaths on the seventh day.

Consider the following Old Testament passages:

1 Chronicles 23:31

And to offer all burnt sacrifices unto the Lord in THE SABBATHS, in THE NEW MOONS, and on the APPOINTED FESTIVALS, by number, according to the order commanded unto them, continually before the Lord.

2 Chronicles 2:4

Behold, I build an house to the name of the Lord my God, to dedicate it to him, and to burn before him sweet incense, and for the continual showbread, and for the burnt offerings morning and evening, on THE SABBATHS, and on THE NEW MOONS, and on THE SOLEMN FESTIVALS of the Lord our God. This is an ordinance for ever to Israel.

2 Chronicles 8:13

Even after a certain rate every day, offering according to the commandment of Moses, on THE SABBATHS, and on THE NEW MOONS, and on THE SOLEMN FESTIVALS, three times in the year, even in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles.

2 Chronicles 31:3

He appointed also the king’s portion of his substance for the burnt offerings, to wit, for the morning and evening burnt offerings, and the burnt offerings for THE SABBATHS, and for THE NEW MOONS, and for THE APPOINTED FESTIVALS, as it is written in the law of the Lord.

Nehemiah 10:33

For the showbread, and for the continual meat offering, and for the continual burnt offering, of THE SABBATHS, of THE NEW MOONS, for the ANNUAL FESTIVALS, and for the holy things, and for the sin offerings to make an atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.

Notice that these passages refer to the same three sacred days that Paul mentions in Colossians 2:16. Like Paul, they all mention the Sabbaths, the new moons, and the festivals (some translations use “feasts”).

Given the fact that Paul frequently makes reference to the Old Testament, and the wording of these passages and Colossians 2:16 are identical, it is clear that Paul is referring to the same sacred days of which these Old Testament passages speak.

(In addition, Numbers 28:9-11 shows us that the Sabbaths mentioned in 1 Chronicles 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 8:13; 31:3, and Nehemiah 10:33 are clearly seventh day Sabbath days.)

Clearly, we can have confidence that Paul’s words in Colossians 2:16 make reference to the weekly Sabbath day, not to the yearly festivals.

The Shadow of the God’s Rest

So Colossians 2:16-17 teach us that along with the monthly new moons and the yearly festivals, the weekly Sabbath is a shadow fulfilled in Christ.

But what was it a shadow of? And how did Christ fulfill it?

Hebrews 4:3-11 answers this question.

For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, “AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH,THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST,” although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: “AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS”; and again in this passage, “THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST.” Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, He again fixes a certain day, “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS.” For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.

This passage teaches us that both the seventh-day rest of Genesis and the land of Canaan described in the Book of Joshua speak of the rest of faith that we now enter into through Christ.

The rest of God is available to God’s people now, for the writer of Hebrews says, “we who have believed do enter into rest,” and “he who has entered into God’s rest has ceased from his own works.”

This rest of faith is found in God’s kingdom.

Although the kingdom of God will be manifested in the future during the glorious display of Christ’s coming (2 Tim. 4:1), we enter into His kingdom now (Luke 17:20-21; Col. 1:13).

The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17).

The kingdom is our inheritance. It is the heavenly places in Christ Jesus mentioned in Ephesians, which was foreshadowed by Israel’s inheritance of Canaan (Josh. 11:23; Eph. 1:18; 5:5).

Just as the Israelites had to fight the inhabitants of Canaan to enter into their promised kingdom, so we must enter into God’s kingdom through the fight of faith (1 Tim. 6:12).

For does not the Scripture say “let us labor with diligence to enter into that rest,” and “the kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12)?

In addition, Acts 14:22 tells us that we enter into God’s kingdom through much tribulation.

God’s people must press into His kingdom through faith (Luke 16:16; Heb. 4:3).

Paradoxically, when we enter into God’s rest of faith, we cease from our own labors just as God did from His. The spiritual principle of the Sabbath, then, is that humans must rest before we work. Adam’s first full day was God’s day of rest.

In Ephesians, Paul teaches the same principle. We must first sit with Christ in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6) before we can walk in righteousness (Eph. 4:1) and stand against the enemy (Eph. 6:11).

Resting in the finished work of our Lord is the basis of all spiritual life and work. Only those who rest in God’s promises and cease from their own efforts can receive God’s righteousness, peace, and joy.

Only those who rely on God’s Spirit by faith, not depending on their own strength, can please the Lord. Romans Chapters 7 and 8 teach us that our own efforts will never bring righteousness, but only faith in Christ will.

Christ brought the kingdom of God, and He is the king.

Since the preaching of John the Baptist, the kingdom of God has been made available to mortals (Matt. 11:11-12). Therefore, the shadow of the Sabbath has been fulfilled by Christ.

The true Sabbath is the kingdom of God that is among us right now, and it will one day be manifested for all to see.

The Sabbath and the Decalogue

If the Sabbath is a shadow as Colossians 2 and Hebrews 4 clearly explain, then why was it a part of the ten commandments? This is a valid question. But the answer is quite simple.

The Decalogue is a short-hand summary of all 613 commandments contained in the Law of Moses. Consequently, it contains examples of the moral law toward God (do not take His name in vain), the moral law toward others (stealing, lying, etc.) and the ceremonial law (keeping the Sabbath holy).

In addition, according to Exodus 31:13 and Ezekiel 20:12, the Sabbath was a sign of God’s covenant with Israel. The Sabbath was a sign of God’s covenant to Israel in much the same way that circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham.

Both circumcision and the Sabbath are said to be everlasting covenants in the Old Testament (Ex. 31:16; Lev. 24:8; Gen. 17:13), yet they are no longer binding today because they were fulfilled in Christ, who is the Eternal Sabbath and the Eternal Circumcision of the heart.

What is important to God is the keeping of the real Sabbath and having the real circumcision which are found in Christ.

Since the Sabbath was a shadow pointing to Jesus, worshipping God on Sunday, Tuesday, or Friday, for example, does not violate God’s character or harm others.

For these reasons, there is no New Testament Scripture that commands us to keep “the letter of the Law” as it pertains to the fourth commandment.

In his treatise against judging fellow Christians, Paul writes the following in Romans 14:5-6,

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone

Paul says that every person should be “fully convinced in their own mind.”

So those whose consciences lead them to rest on the Sabbath are perfectly free in the Lord to do so. But they are not to judge those who does not share that same conviction, for again, Israel’s sacred days were shadows that have been fulfilled in Christ (Col. 2:16).

The First Day of the Week

Although the early Christians did not observe the literal Sabbath, they did routinely meet together on Sundays.

Acts 20:7 says that the disciples came together to break bread on the first day of the week, and 1 Corinthians 16:2 exhorts believers to store up their financial offerings on the first day of the week.

Sunday is the first day of the week. The Sabbath — Saturday — is the seventh day of the week.

In addition, the Bible never teaches or implies that the Sabbath day changed to Sunday. Rather, the Bible teaches that the Sabbath is a shadow that has been fulfilled.

Interestingly, the early Christians called Sunday “the Lord’s day.” This is based on Psalms 118:22-24:

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.

This text is referring to the day that Jesus rose from the dead (see Acts 4:10-11). Jesus rose again on the first day of the week, therefore, this is the day that He became the head of the corner (Mark 16:9).

Some have suggested that the apostles kept the Sabbath day because we read about them going into the temple courts and the synagogues, preaching the message of Christ on the Sabbath.

But the apostles went to the temple courts and the synagogues on the Sabbath day to preach to unconverted Jews. Since the Jews resided in the temple area on the Sabbath, as well as some Gentiles, Paul and the others went there to prove to them that Jesus was the Messiah.

A careful reading of Acts 13:14-48; 14:1-7; 17:1-14 and 18:4 show that these meetings were evangelistic outreaches during Paul’s apostolic trips. They were not church meetings.

Note Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 9:19-21:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law, but I am in law to Christ), so as to win those not having the law.

A Look at Church History

According to church history, the early Christians routinely assembled on the first day of the week. The early Christians also called Sunday “the eighth day.”

This testimony does not come from those believers living in Rome and Alexandria only (as some suggest), but from other parts of the world such as Antioch, Lyons, and Asia Minor.

Consider the following witnesses to this fact:

Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 30-107) states that Christians “no longer observe the Sabbath, but are living in the observance of the Lord’s day.”

The Didache (A.D. 80) says “But every Lord’s day do you gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving.” (7:381)

In the Epistle of Barnabas (2nd century), we read, “I will make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world, Wherefore, also we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day that Jesus rose from the dead.” (Ch. 15)

In his first apology, Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-167) writes, “On the day which is called Sunday we have a common assembly of all who live in the cities or in the outlying districts, and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the Prophets are read …” (Ch. 67)

In the Teaching of the Apostles (A.D. 105), we read, “The apostles therefore appointed … on the first day of the week let there be service and reading of the holy scriptures, and the oblation [communion] because on the first day of the week our Lord arose upon the world, and ascended to heaven. (8:668)

In the Apostolic Constitutions (2nd-3rd centuries) we read, “Break your fast … the first day of the week, which is the Lord’s day … After eight days let there be another feast observed with honor, the eighth day itself.” (7:447)

Both Tertullian (A.D. 160-225) and Justin Martyr stated that the Sabbath was a shadow which was abolished under Christ just as circumcision was. (As far as I know, Tertullian was the first to declare the idea of resting on Sunday.)

In addition, Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 174) stated that “the old seventh day has become nothing more than a working day,” and Theophilus (A.D. 163) said that “we should honor the Lord’s day, seeing on that day it was that our Lord completed His resurrection from the dead.”

Finally, church historian Eusebius wrote, “From the beginning Christians assembled on the first day of the week, called by them the Lord’s day, for the purpose of religious worship, to read the Scriptures, to preach and to celebrate the Lord’s supper.”

Eusebius explained that Sunday has the preeminence over the seventh day because of Jesus’ resurrection.

This by no means suggests that Christians must gather on Sunday, for there is no such law in the New Testament. Paul also makes clear that there are no “sacred days” on God’s calendar (see Rom. 14).

It does demonstrate, however, that both the primitive church and the ancient church — before Constantine — did not observe the Sabbath for rest or for worship.

Tying All the Threads

In conclusion, the Sabbath day command was an ordinance that foreshadowed the coming rest in God’s kingdom that Jesus Christ would bring (Heb. 4). Christ, in essence, is our Sabbath rest.

God’s desire is that we enter into this spiritual rest now, rather than trying to keep the letter of the seventh day command. His aim is that we keep the substance of the Sabbath rather than its shadow. The Sabbath is about a Person, not a day.

For this reason, Christians who are convicted by their conscience that they are to observe the Sabbath as holy are never to judge those who do not share that conviction (see Col. 2).

As Paul said, concerning sacred days, let each person be persuaded in his own mind, and see that he or she does not judge another in these matters (Rom. 14).

You Are Free

All told, if a person is going to insist that Christians must observe the Sabbath as specified in the Old Testament Law, then they are also obligated to be circumcised (if they are male).

They are also obligated to offer blood sacrifices.

They are also obligated to follow the temple worship rituals.

They are also obligated to rid their homes of all forms of yeast (leaven) during the specified times of the year.

They are also obligated never to wear clothes that are made of mixed fabrics.

And they are also obligated to follow every other ceremonial ritual in the Law of Moses.

If that’s you, recall the words of Peter in Acts 15:10:

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?

I’d also encourage you to re-read the Book of Hebrews.

New Testament revelation is unmistakably clear that Jesus has circumcised our flesh with the knife of His Spirit. It is unmistakably clear that Christ is our blood sacrifice. It is unmistakably clear that Jesus is the Temple of God of which we are a part. It is unmistakably clear that Christ has empowered us to rid ourselves of the “old yeast” of sin, and to be separate and unmixed from the world.

It is also unmistakably clear, as we’ve seen in this post, that Jesus is our Sabbath rest.

If you’re still not convinced, you can read a scholarly examination of the biblical teaching on the Sabbath in Scripture and the Authority of God by N.T. Wright, Chapter 9.

Wright comes to the same basic conclusions that I have, be he arrives at them using a different line of argument. Consequently, both this blog post and Wright’s chapter form a thorough response to the oft-asked question, “Should Christians keep the Sabbath day?”

This article is included in my titan hardcover, There Must Be More.

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