Arriving at a Christocentric Interpretation and Application of the Fourth Commandment
Sabbatarian Christians set a noble example of going against the mainstream. They are convinced of the importance of literal Sabbath-keeping and are willing to act that belief out even if it separates them from the dominant practices of the Church. This is commendable. All of us should be willing to be obedient to God’s Word at any cost. While I admire this about my Sabbatarian brethren, and I am in some ways sympathetic to their position, at the end of the day, I remain unconvinced that theirs is the biblical view. I have tried to approach this topic with an open mind and heart, willing to be convinced from the Scriptures, and at certain points in my study even leaning in a Sabbatarian direction (see my previous article Re-examining the Sabbath), but after much prayer and examination of the biblical texts, my conviction has actually been reinforced in another direction which doesn’t line up with the typical Sabbatarian view. In the following paragraphs, I will seek to show why.
First, as I have pointed out in the first article, the Sabbatarian view is based largely on the premise that the Sabbath is a universal moral command and therefore perpetual in its literal application. Since I’ve already given a more detailed explanation of this argument in the aforementioned article, I will simply summarize it here. Basically, since God established the Sabbath at creation and the Exodus 20 commandment to Israel is clearly linked to this creation Sabbath, then the Sabbath is to be obeyed by all people, in all places and periods (there is of course a variation of this view which transfers the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, but this article will primarily address the seventh-day sabbath view. If you hold to the Sunday Sabbatarian position and believe you can support it biblically, leave a comment, and I will gladly engage with you). The foundational Sabbatarian argument is simple enough to understand; the Sabbath commandment is perpetual and universal because it was given at creation and restated in the Law written down at Sinai. However, we must ask, is this what Scripture teaches?
In seeking to give a solid answer to this question, let’s examine some potential options.
Alternative #1 “The Sabbath was ‘Old Testament,’ we live in ‘New Testament’ times that settles it.”
This view could also be summarized as “we are not under law but under grace so that settles it.” However, we must be careful here, for as Paul states “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). In context this most certainly includes the Old Testament. So the Sabbath commandment (and all of Exodus 20) has bearing on Christians. Being useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, it cannot simply be dismissed as for another dispensation.
It is also worth noting that the typical Sabbatarian response to this position is to state that the Sabbath predates the giving of the Law at Sinai. In other words, even though they agree that the sacrificial system and ceremonial laws have been fulfilled in Christ and are therefore no longer literally applicable to New Testament believers, they argue that the fourth commandment along with the other nine, are a part of God’s eternal moral law––written by His own finger. The division of the Law between moral, civil, and ceremonial, or creational laws and redemptive laws is more than we can get into in this article, but these positions have been held and robustly supported by numerous theologians and cannot simply be dismissed by waving one’s hand and tritely stating “we are not under law but under grace.” That is of course a Scriptural statement, but we must remember it is possible to say what Scripture says without actually meaning what Scripture means. At the end of the day, we must acknowledge that the fourth commandment has been preserved in God’s holy word and has practical bearing on the life of Christians. This first alternative doesn’t seem to take that seriously enough.
Alternative #2 “The Sabbath should be applied to Christians today through the lens of Christ”
In order to fully appreciate this position, it will be helpful to begin with some critical background concerning the fourth commandment. Without a doubt, this commandment has a particularly prominent place in Scripture. Consider the following:
- In the Old Testament, the Sabbath commandment is arguably mentioned more times than any other of the ten commandments.
- Sabbath violation was listed as a capital offense and treated as such.
- Sabbath-breaking is stated as a primary reason for the exile.
- Sabbath reform is a major part of the OT prophets’ ministry.
In light of these facts, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Jesus mentions the Sabbath in his teaching more than any other of the 10 Commandments. However, what should surprise us is what He says and especially what He doesn’t say regarding the Sabbath. Consider the following:
- Jesus never directly restates (or even paraphrases) any part of the fourth commandment. To say it another way, in spite of all the times the Sabbath commandment comes up in the Gospels, Jesus shockingly never affirms the literal keeping of the seventh-day of the week as a day for rest and worship. The Sabbatarian responds “why would he need to?” But please hear me out on this.
- In the numerous “Jesus on the Sabbath” episodes, our Lord consistently emphasizes in His explicit teaching something other than the literal resting on the seventh-day. Taking this striking fact into account, it seems clear that Jesus is setting the stage for a deeper understanding and new application of the Sabbath. This is also consistent with the many other ways that Jesus defied the expectations of the Jews. They expected Messiah to come as a conqueror, riding in on a white horse and defeating the Romans. They had Scripture to back this up, but their expectations were defied. Is it too much to suggest that the Messiah’s fulfillment of the Sabbath would also defy expectations? Is that not what every Sabbath episode in the Gospels implies?
- There is only one place in the Gospels where Jesus explicitly gives a command regarding “rest.” That command is found immediately before two Sabbath episodes, but astonishingly, the command concerning “rest” given by Jesus has nothing to do with a day of the week! Instead, He points to Himself as the One in whom true rest is to be found. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 ESV). This imperative statement in Matthew 11 is the closest thing to a Sabbath command from the mouth of Jesus, but again the rest is to be found not in a day but in a person.
- Jesus broke the Sabbath in a non-sinful way (one that was not in violation of OT Law), and remarkably he defended His followers for doing the same, on the basis that He is greater than the temple and the true Son of David (Matthew 12:1-14). It is often asserted that Jesus merely broke the rabbinical traditions regarding the Sabbath and not the Scriptural Sabbath commandment itself, but the context says nothing about rabbinical traditions, and the examples that Jesus gives in defense of his disciples are examples of actual Sabbath-breaking, not tradition-breaking (e.g. “Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” Matthew 12:5 ESV). Furthermore, John, inspired by the Holy Spirit states the following regarding Jesus’ actions, “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18 ESV). Here, John gives no qualification. He does not say that Jesus was breaking their Sabbath but the Sabbath. Notice also that this is not the Jews’ perspective but John’s. Being that God is a God of order and not of confusion, would it be like Him to leave such a statement if He really intended to communicate that Jesus was merely breaking the rabbinical additions to the Sabbath? What does it imply then that Jesus is greater than the Sabbath and therefore could break it in an unsinful manner? What does this imply for those who are now “in Christ”? Like the disciples, who were “exempt” from the literal Sabbath observance because of their relationship to Jesus (who is greater than the Sabbath), so we who have been adopted by the Father as co-heirs with Christ, are now “exempt” from this Old Testament understanding and practice of Sabbath. By “exempt” I mean that we no longer are under the jurisdiction of the Old Covenant which pointed towards Christ. It is not that we throw out the Old Testament, but we realize that we can not simply apply it as if Jesus had never come. His coming radically changes things. He has brought in a New Covenant by His blood. We see this radical change with circumcision, the sacrifices, the priests, and the temple, it is not inconsistent to see it with the Sabbath as well. “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:4-6 ESV). We can say all of this while also affirming with Paul that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12)
Answering objections to the “Fulfillment Perspective”
The New Testament understanding of circumcision does not imply that Christians should rip the pages that contain the Old Testament teaching on circumcision out of their Bibles any more than the New Testament understanding of Sabbath should render unimportant the Old Testament teaching on Sabbath. The Old Testament is still useful for Christians, but it must always be interpreted through the lens of Christ. Speaking of his fellow Israelites, Paul writes, “But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” (2 Corinthians 3:14-16 ESV). This text (along with others such as Luke 24:25-27,44-45) highlights the importance of the Christ-centric hermeneutic. We can’t simply say “those who love Christ keep his commandments” and then tell Christians, “go get circumcised because that is what the Old Testament commands.” In doing such a thing, we would be forgetting to bring Christ and the New Covenant ratified by His blood into the equation. To keep Christ’s commandments after the coming of Messiah does not look the same as it did before His coming. Even most Sabbatarians recognize this when it comes to the commands of circumcision and sacrifices. However, when we non-Sabbatarians say that we no longer need to rest on the literal seventh-day, they are quick to assert that if we truly love Christ then we would keep His commandments, but this is a non sequitur. Do they love Christ? Then shouldn’t they keep his commandments about animal sacrifices? Of course not. Because the book of Hebrews makes it clear that animal sacrifices are no longer commanded in the New Covenant (see Hebrews 10:1-10). The author of Hebrews states clearly reasons for the legitimacy of these major changes: “For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” (Hebrews 7:12 ESV) and “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near (Hebrews 10:1 ESV). Once again, notice that these changes would have defied the expectations of the Jews––just as many other things regarding Jesus defied their expectations. This was a new paradigm for them, though the Old Testament certainly hints at it in numerous places (e.g. Deuteronomy 10:12-17; Jeremiah 4:4). Since Scripture gives us this clear paradigm with circumcision, it should not be hard to see how the Sabbath fits into it as well, especially when we consider Jesus’ teaching above.
Some will object that we should not compare the Sabbath to circumcision or animal sacrifice since it is mentioned at creation and prior to the written law. However, animal sacrifice is referred to probably as early as Genesis 3 and definitely by Genesis 4, long before the Law given at Sinai. Yet this does not mean that animal sacrifice is a perpetual and universal commandment. Circumcision is also commanded long before Sinai––in fact, the command to circumcise (Genesis 17) is given before the explicit command to keep the Sabbath (Exodus 20)––yet this does not mean that circumcision is perpetual and universal in its literal sense. If one insists that the Sabbath is perpetual because it meets certain criteria that sacrifices and circumcision don’t meet, my question would be on what basis does one establish such criteria? If particular criteria cannot be shown to be presented as such in Scripture, then one is left appealing to an extra-biblical standard. However, if were to apply the criteria used by Sabbatarians, both circumcision and animal sacrifices have a much stronger case than Sabbath-keeping, since Scripture records accounts of people engaged in these activities long before the first mention of humans keeping the Sabbath in Exodus 16.
Wrapping Things Up
In light of all of this, I see no reason to explain away the plainest reading of Paul’s words to the Colossians: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17 ESV). There are so many complicated and eisegetical explanations of this passage, yet the straightforward reading of the text aligns perfectly with what we would expect after hearing Jesus’ unexpected teachings on the Sabbath and after hearing the letter to the Hebrews. As mentioned above, many Sabbatarians will acknowledge that we no longer need to offer animal sacrifices, appoint priests, or circumcise baby boys on the eighth-day, but they will be quick to point out that we have specific New Testament teaching to warrant such a change in application. They argue that we do not have that same warrant regarding the Sabbath, but I believe we do; in the teaching of Jesus mentioned above, in the writings of Paul regarding the Law, and specifically in Colossians 2:16-17. It seems that our Sabbatarian brethren so want the Sabbath to continue to our day that they must force another meaning onto these clear passages. If they choose to cease from work on the Seventh-day for rest or devotion, I see no problem with that, but to summon all Christians to such a practice seems to be totally out of line with both the clear teaching of the New Testament as well as a Christ-centered reading of the Old.
For years I have had the habit of taking a weekly day of rest (in some seasons it has been on Saturdays and in others on Sundays) and this has no doubt been beneficial to my health and the health of my relationships. There is scriptural backing for such a habit. But this is not how I keep the Sabbath holy. In line with the Scriptures above and with Matthew 11 in particular, I keep the Sabbath holy by resting daily in Christ and in His finished work. I could dishonor the heart of the Sabbath on Tuesday by not finding my refuge in Christ on that day. No, you say… the Sabbath refers to the seventh-day, how can you change it to an everyday thing? But this kind of radical change in application is not unheard of in the pages of Scripture. Just as the NT offers a new application of animal sacrifice, radically changed from its OT form (i.e. offer your bodies as living sacrifices, Romans 12:1-2), I believe that finding daily enjoyment in Christ is the New Testament application of the Fourth commandment. I take that command seriously and I take the Christocentric nature of Scripture seriously, and that leads me to sabbath daily in His finished work. Are you resting in Christ and His victory today?