The Old Testament Sabbath and the New Testament Sabbath
The Meaning of the Sabbath
The Sabbath is שַׁבָּת (shab-bawth’) in Hebrew and σαββάτων (sab’-bat-on) in Greek, meaning “to stop working” or “to rest”. In other words, the Sabbath contains the meaning of a ’day of rest’ or ‘rest (from labor)’¹. The Sabbath day originated from the completion of God’s creation work; in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth in six days and after finishing all the work rested on the seventh-day.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth … and He separated the light from the darkness … –the first day … and separated the water under the expanse from the water above it. And it was so … –the second day … in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them … –the sixth day … And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.(Genesis 1:1-2:3)
The seventh-day Sabbath was instituted according to God’s will. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. This means that people, God’s creations, can receive blessings and be clothed with holiness by observing this day, and to remember the fact that the Creator who created the heavens and the earth is God. Whether we keep the Sabbath or not is the criterion for whether or not we acknowledge God as the Creator. We can confirm God’s will in the Ten Commandments, which God Himself engraved for us.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD … On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made… all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore… blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.(Exodus 20:8-11)
The seventh day Sabbath was set apart from other days and keeping it holy is an act of receiving God’s blessing, and a sign of being recognized as God’s people (Exodus 31:13, 16-18).
Sabbath Observance in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament times, there was a distinction between the way the priests kept the Sabbath and the way the people kept the Sabbath.
… the seventh day is a Sabbath day of complete rest, an official day for holy assembly. It is the Lord’s Sabbath day, and it must be observed wherever you live.(NLT Leviticus 23:3)
According to these Sabbath ordinances, the people gathered to worship God. Labor was forbidden. They did not sell or buy food such as figs, grain, etc. and did not even load their products on their animals (Nehemiah 13:15).
They did not even light a fire in any home (Exodus 35:3). And food for the Sabbath was prepared on the day before. Even when the Israelites lived in the desert, the manna they ate on the Sabbath day was gathered up the day before. They did all this to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 16:5, 23-30).
As such, God’s people had to strictly observe the Sabbath no matter what circumstances they were in (Exodus 34:21). In the Old Testament times, the punishment given to those who broke the Sabbath law was death (Numbers 15:32-36).
Make the Sabbath a special day. If someone treats the Sabbath like any other day, that person must be killed. Whoever works on the Sabbath day must be separated from their people.(ERV Exodus 31:14)
As mentioned earlier, the priests had different ways of keeping the Sabbath from the people. They were tasked with offering sacrifices to God every Sabbath. They presented burnt offerings with rams according to the time God appointed, and a grain offering and drink offering made with a certain amount of flour mixed with oil (Leviticus 24:5-8, 1 Chronicles 9:32, 23:31, 2 Chronicles 2:4, Ezekiel 46: 4).
On the Sabbath day, sacrifice two one-year-old male lambs with no defects. They must be accompanied by a grain offering of four quarts of choice flour moistened with olive oil, and a liquid offering. This is the burnt offering to be presented each Sabbath day…(NLT Numbers 28:9-10)
Sabbath Observance in the New Testament
In the New Testament times, the Sabbath regulations Jesus taught were unconventional.
… on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it…(Luke 4:16-17)
Jesus set an example of keeping the seventh-day Sabbath in the synagogue. Something to pay attention to is, in the Sabbath of the Old Testament times, sacrifices were offered with the shedding of animal blood, but Jesus did not do this. This was because He Himself became the reality of the sacrificial offering by shedding His blood on the cross. Therefore, instead of offering sacrifices with animal blood according to the regulations of the Old Covenant, worship was offered in spirit and truth according to the regulations of the New Covenant. In other words, the Sabbath regulations have changed (Hebrews 7:12, 10:9~14).
Jesus’ disciples also kept the Sabbath regulations in the same way Jesus had taught them.
On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.(Acts 13:44)
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer …(Acts 16:13)
… Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures,(Acts 17:2)
At that time, it was when the gospel of the New Covenant taught by Jesus was being preached to the Gentiles. It was before an actual church had been established. So the apostles preached the gospel in places where no churches had been established, and if it happened to be the Sabbath, they went into the synagogue and kept the Sabbath while preaching that Jesus was the Savior. If they were in a situation where there were no synagogues, they gathered outdoors and kept the Sabbath. This means they kept the Sabbath according to the regulations of the New Covenant that Jesus Himself had set as an example.
Which Day is Jesus the Lord of?
Since the Old Testament times, the Sabbath has been kept as a strict command of God. Even in the New Testament times, only the regulations changed, the apostles and Christians of the early Church continued to offer worship in spirit and truth when the seventh-day Sabbath came. These biblical records have become milestones and guides that lead us to heaven in this present day and age. How the early Church kept worship is very important. Our example to follow must only be Jesus and the early Church.
However, most churches today insist that the Sabbath was abolished and worship on Sunday. Jesus did not abolish the Sabbath. Rather, Jesus clearly revealed that He is the Lord of the Sabbath.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.(Matthew 12:8, Luke 6:5)
Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, then what is the origin of Sunday worship?
… The earliest recognition of the observance of Sunday as a legal duty is a constitution of Constantine in A.D. 321, enacting that all courts of justice, inhabitants of towns, and workshops were to be at rest on Sunday (venerabili die Solis), with an exception in favour of those engaged in agricultural labour …(Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1899 Edition, Vol. XXIII, page 654)
The Catholic Church for over one thousand years before the existence of a Protestant, by virtue of her divine mission, changed the day from Saturday to Sunday.(The Catholic Mirror, September 1893)
All judges and city people and the craftsmen shall rest upon the venerable ‘Day of the Sun.’(Arthur P. Stanley, History of the Eastern Church, p. 184)
But perhaps the most significant evidence of this policy is to be found in the decree of 321 regulating Sunday observance. That ordinance puts the Lord’s Day on the same level of observance as the pagan festivals and marks it by the cessation of work. It is noteworthy, however, that the day is described by no Christian appellation but simply as dies venerabilis solis, and no pagan could well object to that. …(William Wand, A History of the Early Church to AD 500, pg. 193)
Christianity is a religion that believes in God who came as a man, that is, Jesus. Jesus clearly said that He was the Lord of the Sabbath. Let’s think about this for a moment. If you believe in Jesus, are you worshiping God properly?
- Sabbath, Etymonline
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1899 Edition, Vol. XXIII, page 654
- The Catholic Mirror, September 1893
- Arthur P. Stanley, History of the Eastern Church, p. 184
- William Wand, A History of the Early Church to AD 500, pg. 193
- Sunday, day of week, Britannica
- Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties, Sunday Closing Cases and Laws, pg. 1586