Summary of Sabbath Issues
The Sabbatical system was given to Israel under the law. God Himself had rested on the seventh day and it was this “model” which gave a basis for the Sabbath-keeping later ordained for Israel in Exodus 16. It was not that God instituted the Sabbath at creation for all mankind. It was rather that in Exodus 16 He revealed a new institution for Israel and connected this Sabbath with His earlier rest at creation. Hence Exodus 20:11 reads: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh day [not at that time called ‘the Sabbath’]; consequently now, [so the Heb. al chen = ‘therefore’ may be rendered] the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Jesus said that the “Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27), but the man in question refers to Israel of whom it was also said that they “rebelled against Me…nor were they careful to observe My ordinances, by which, if a man [i.e., an Israelite] observes them, he will live” (Ezek. 20:21). The “man” here refers to Israel to whom God’s law was given, not to mankind.
The words of Paul in Colossians 2:16, 17 inform us that the New Testament Sabbath consists of a permanent rest in Christ who is the substance of the Old Covenant shadows found in the holy days, new moons and Sabbaths. The Sabbath-keeping community cannot agree among themselves as to how to explain these verses (Col. 2:16, 17). They avoid the plain meaning.
Some insist (as Ellen G. White, founder of Seventhday Adventism did) that Paul must have excluded the weekly Sabbath from this “trio” of observances.¹ Mrs. White’s successors, notably Samuele Bacchiocchi, see that Paul lists all types of Sabbath observance. They then claim that Paul has something other than the days themselves in mind. However, they fail to explain why the holy days and new moons are not equally binding on Christians. The whole system stands or falls together. Bacchiocchi appears to evade the plain sense of Colossians 2:16, 17 by suggesting that Paul is against ascetic practices connected with the Sabbath and not the Sabbath itself. But can ascetic practices be “shadows of things to come”? It is the observances which are shadows found in the law (cp. Heb. 10:1). These are now unimportant for Christians. As Paul said in Galatians 3:23: “Before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was about to be revealed.” He uses the same language when he insists that Sabbaths, new moons and holy days are “shadows of things about to be” (Col. 2:17). Since Christ has come as the substance of those shadows, it is unnecessary for Christians to insist on the shadow. But if they do, consistency demands the observance of the Sabbath, holy days and new moons.
There is a freedom in Christ which Christians can enjoy and pass on to others. A rigid holding on to Old Testament festivals hampers the spirit of Christ and the Gospel. We are no longer under the law (Rom. 6:14). We have been “released from the law” (Rom. 7:6). We have “died to the law through the body of Christ, that [we] might be joined to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:4). To those who “desire to be under the law” (Gal. 4:21) we recommend the important words of Paul in Galatians 4:21-31: The Mount Sinai covenant leads to bondage. For the children of the promise there is a new and glorious liberty in Christ. There is a New Covenant in the spirit. The Old Covenant with its legal system has been replaced by something better (Heb. 8:13). We are not “under obligation to observe the whole law” (Gal. 5:3). If we attempt to do so, we “have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4). Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the custodianship of the law (Gal. 3:24, 25). Those who insist on the law in its old form risk belonging to the covenant from Mount Sinai (Gal. 4:24). Children of the covenant of law cannot be heirs with the sons of the free woman (Gal. 4:30). Those who cling to the Sinai legal system are not good candidates for the Kingdom of God.
Surely it is clear that all types of Old Covenant rest days are no longer binding on those who seek to rest in Christ, ceasing from their own works daily (Heb. 4:9, 10). In the words of a sixteenth-century theologian, the Sabbath means “that I cease from all my evil works all the days of my life, allow the Lord to work in me through his Spirit, and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.”²
Our purpose has been to suggest that a number of popular misunderstandings underlie the tenacious conviction of many that God’s law expects them to cease from labor for a 24-hour period, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. This doctrine was not learned from the Apostles,
who lay no such obligation on any follower of Jesus. Indeed Paul, we believe, would be disturbed that Gentiles in the 21st century still allow themselves to become obligated to Sabbath-keeping as essential for salvation.
If the Gentile Christians had been required at conversion to rest on the Sabbath day, this would have needed specific directions from the Acts 15 council which decided how far a Gentile believer was obligated to follow the practices of Judaism. Sabbath-keeping, according to the apostolic decision, is not a requirement for Gentile believers. We should remember that Gentiles had been permitted to attend at the synagogues of the Jews, but the latter did not instruct them to become Sabbath-keepers. Only those who became full proselytes to Judaism adopted Sabbath observance. The Jews themselves knew that God had given them the Sabbath and did not expect Sabbathkeeping of other nations. Thus it would have required a special ordinance for Gentiles if Sabbath-keeping were necessary for them as Christians. Paul later confirmed the council’s ruling in Romans 14:5 where the observance of days is a matter of conscience. There is no question of obligatory Sabbath-keeping. (The argument that Paul is dealing with special fast days breaks down, because the issue concerning food in verses 1-4 has to do with habitual vegetarianism, not periodic abstinence by fasting. In verse 5 there is a change of subject: One man “regards every day alike.” This is not true of fasting. Paul did not say, “one man regards any day as suitable for fasting.” The reference is to the non-observance of certain days.)
(1) This trio is found in Ezek. 45:17 (“festivals, new moons, Sabbaths”); Neh. 10:33 (“Sabbaths, new moons, appointed times”); I Chron. 23:31 (“Sabbaths, new moons, holy days”); II Chron. 2:4 (“Sabbaths, new moons and appointed feasts”); II Chron. 8:13 (“Sabbaths, new moons, and the thrice-yearly festivals”); Hosea 2:11 (“festivals, new moons, Sabbaths”); Col. 2:16 (“festivals, new moons, Sabbaths”). See also II Kings 4:23; Ezek. 46:1; Amos 8:5. See further, page 60.
(2) Zacharias Ursinus in the Heidelberg Catechism, 1563.