By Old Testament Law, failure to observe the Sabbath had severe consequences — the death penalty. However, Christ refused to take a legalistic view of the Sabbath and even upheld that he was the Lord of the Sabbath.
And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the LORD said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the LORD commanded Moses. (Note also Exodus 35:3, stipulating that no one could even build a fire on the Sabbath. However, Isaiah 1:12-20 sets out that righteousness means more to God than Sabbath observance).
At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.
Christ's noting that priests of the temple profaned the Sabbath may refer to the performance of the rite of circumcision, by Law to occur eight days after birth, which could fall on the Sabbath, Leviticus 12:2; John 7:21-24. However, in general priests carried out their duties on the Sabbath, Leviticus 24:8; Numbers 28:9,10.
Christ observed the Sabbath, Mark 1:21; 3:1; Luke 4:16; 13:10, upheld the Ten Commandments, Matthew 19:17, noted he came to fulfill the Law, 5:17, and proclaimed not even a tittle of the Law would ever fail, Luke 16:17. However, he was criticized for healing on the Sabbath contrary to the Law, Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-18; 9:1-41. Some scholars take the position that Christ only endorsed work on the Sabbath in establishing the principle that human need has to be placed above Sabbath observance. And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath, Mark 2:27,28.
In considering how the Old and New Testaments deal with the Sabbath, the question arises — in what way has there been any change in how the people of God are to view this day of rest?
In the Old Testament, the Sabbath is a holy convocation, a sign between God and his people, a perpetual covenant – Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings, Leviticus 23:3. Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you... Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant, Exodus 31:13,15,16.
The Old Testament indicates the people observed the Sabbath regularly, I Chronicles 9:32; 23:31; II Chronicles 2:4; 8:13; 23:4; 31:3; Isaiah 1:13. And the prophets declared that violation of the Sabbath was involved with the judgment that came against the people, Ezekiel 22:8, with noting the pursuit of commercial transactions on that day, Jeremiah 17:21; Nehemiah 13:15-22, as well as personal pleasure in place of delighting in the Lord, Isaiah 58:13,14.
The Mosaic Law also stipulated observing a Sabbatical Year. Every seventh year was set aside to rest the soil, care for the poor and animals, remit debt, and free slaves, Exodus 21:3; 23:10,11; Leviticus 25:4-7; Deuteronomy chp. 15. And by the Law, the year following seven Sabbatical Years was to be celebrated as a Jubilee, which provided for further rest for the soil and the freeing of slaves, as well as reverting property to original owners, Leviticus 25:8-55. The failure to observe the Sabbath Years was also a part of the judgment that came against the people, Leviticus 26:34; II Chronicles 36:21.
Isaiah notes that after Israel is restored, all people shall worship the Lord on the Sabbath, Isaiah 66:23. However, does this verse mean that the Sabbath will be observed in exactly the same manner as it was in Old Testament times, in a strictly legalistic fashion? The prophet Ezekiel sets out how the temple will be restored in the end times with Israel; yet, the physical description of the building is many times more magnificent than the Old Testament model, and the rituals and priesthood differ as well.
As the church was established, some Jews preached that all believers in Christ had to maintain the Mosaic Law, but the apostle Paul rejected this view completely, holding that the former ceremonial observances were nailed to the cross, including the observance of the Sabbath.
And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved... But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.
But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.
However, observance of the Sabbath primarily seems to be based on God's work of creation. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made, Genesis 2:2,3. ...for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed, Exodus 31:12. And Scripture indicates the early Christians observed the Sabbath on the first day of the week, Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10, apparently arising from the 40 days Christ spent with his disciples after the resurrection, Acts 1:3. However, the New Testament teaches that all those who accept Christ enter God's rest from his work and from their own. The act of receiving Christ is an observance of the Sabbath, an actual Sabbath-rest.
The NIV paraphrases this concept of salvation well at Hebrews 4:1-11
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”
It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day.
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.
Ultimately, Scripture is clear that every Christian should consider the meaning of the Sabbath and make a decision regarding its observance. However, in reality it is a personal matter, and only a subject of judgment between God and the individual believer. We should not judge other Christians on their beliefs regarding the Sabbath.
One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it... But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
Commonly, Christians will take different positions on whether going to a restaurant or sporting event on the Sabbath is proper. However, it appears that each believer must settle this issue on a personal level, as a matter between oneself and God, and not being subject to judgment by others.
Some Christians hold that the Sabbath must be strictly observed and only on a Saturday. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it..., Genesis 2:3. However, the calendar established in the Old Testament only has 360 days per year, Genesis 7:11, 24; 8:3,4; Esther 1:4; Revelation 11:2,3; 12:6; 13:5-7, cf. Daniel 7:25, and it would be difficult in our time and with our calendar to even determine on a strict basis what constitutes the seventh day. However, according to Romans chp. 14, we should not judge Christians holding to this position, but let them be persuaded in their own mind as a matter between them and the Lord, even if they choose to judge us.
M. Paul Webb