I once participated in a heated discussion with my friend of another denomination about the Christian Sabbath. She insisted that the seventh day, meaning Saturday, is the Sabbath. She even had me count out the days, and I could not disagree with her. Thinking her point proved correct, I felt ashamed that I couldn’t put forth any rebuttal as to why I go to church and spend extra time with God on Sunday. But 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth,” inspired me to find out more about the Sabbath. What is it? Why is it important? And does it matter which day we honor the Sabbath?
A Day Of Rest
Genesis 2:3 reads, “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating he had done.” God – rested? Rest may sound like a foreign concept in this day and age, with the constant barrage of stimuli – but rest is important. Though we are made in God’s image, God most likely rested by choice, but we humans need to rest. Not only is it important physically, as in sleep, but mentally and spiritually as well. In Exodus 23:12 God says, “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.” We rest because God tells us to. We call this the Sabbath. Though we may rest because God asks us to, he does so for our own health and benefit. He loves and cares for us and wants us to be refreshed. Resting also expresses our faith in God, as we honor him and do what he commands of us.
Is the Sabbath a certain day? Saturday or Sunday?
There is no specific verse in the New Testament that states when Christians should keep the Sabbath, and the word Sunday is never mentioned in the Bible. Sunday has become a culturally acceptable day of worship since Constantine declared it so (the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity), but in reality, every day is equal. It says in Colossians 2:16-17, “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.” Paul’s words trump the discussion of whether the Sabbath should be Saturday or Sunday, or if any specific day is better than another and reminds us to focus on Christ, rather than technicalities. Which day to reserve the Sabbath becomes a moot point that is determined by tradition and preference, rather than Scripture directly. However, both Sabbath days are not without meaning, and can have much historical or personal significance.
In the Roman period, what we now know as the seven days of the week were created. The days were named after planets (passed down from the Greeks) and numbered. The Roman Empire selected Sunday (after the Sun) as the first day of the week and named Saturday (after Saturn) the seventh day. Because God rested on the seventh day and made it holy, followers of God wanted to honor that seventh day of rest because God did, which is how the Jewish Sabbath became Saturday. You could say that’s a good reason to choose a Saturday Sabbath. As Jesus was a Jew, he kept the Sabbath on Saturday (as do Jews still and some Christian denominations), so as a follower of Jesus, you might also want to keep the Sabbath on a Saturday like he did. This too could be a meaningful reason to reserve a Saturday Sabbath. But, because Jesus wasn’t just a Jew, but also the Son of God, Mark 2:28 says, “So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath.” Jesus healed people on Saturday the Sabbath, he performed miracles, and the religious leaders of the day considered that work and considered it wrong. Jesus spoke otherwise:
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.Luke 13:10-17
This was Jesus’ way of saying, many of us have missed the point of the Sabbath. It should not be a rule to keep just for the sake of keeping. Having to “rest” should not keep you from helping others or doing things that are necessary – cooking, eating, showering, etc. The Sabbath is meant for rejuvenation and refreshment from the week’s work and our busy schedules and can allow us some down time to seek God in more meaningful ways, longer times of prayer or a renewed joy in seeking a fresh perspective from God and evaluating our week, goals, plans, dreams, or purpose. Why is the Sabbath now Sunday for most people you may ask? What are the supporting arguments for a Sunday Sabbath? In the 4th Century AD, Constantine declared:
All judges and city people and the craftsmen shall rest upon the venerable day of the sun. Country people, however, may freely attend to the cultivation of the fields, because it frequently happens that no other days are better adapted for planting the grain in the furrows or the vines in trenches. So that the advantage given by heavenly providence may not for the occasion of a short time perish.Joseph Cullen Ayer, A Source Book for Ancient Church History
But Constantine wasn’t the first to put aside Sunday instead of Saturday as the Sabbath. In Acts 20:7 the early church came together on Sundays, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.”
Some Christians see Sunday as their symbolic holy day of rest because of Jesus’ resurrection occurring on a Sunday. They choose to put aside Sunday in honor and celebration of Christ overcoming sin and rising from the dead. Mark 16:1-6 says, “When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.”
Reserving a Sunday Sabbath, or the first day of the week, could also mean to celebrate the shift and inclusion of non-Jews (or Gentiles) into God’s Kingdom. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, the whole world now has access to God through the belief in Jesus. This may have been part of the reason that the early church shifted the Sabbath day from that of the traditional Saturday Jewish Sabbath to Sunday. Either way, it’s the principle that is important. Exercise your faith and love in God by working the other six days of the week and resting one. Honor God by devoting time to him and putting other work aside. Sometimes resting makes us restless, especially in our go-go-go society, but when we say Monday through Saturday, “I’m too tired,” God tells us in Matthew 11:28, “I will give you rest.”