The root word for Sabbath in Hebrew means to “desist” or “cease” and was included in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. We even find the pattern for Sabbath observance laid out in Genesis 2:1–3 where God “rests” from His labour and makes the seventh day holy.
Today there are broad and varied views on the Sabbath. Seventh Day Adventists (SDAs) following “prophetic insight” from Ellen White associate Sabbath observance with the seal of God from Revelation while associating forced Sunday worship with the mark of the beast. Other groups hold that the Sabbath has officially changed to Sunday with Catholics citing papal authority to change the day, while others see the Sabbath as fulfilled in Christ and the “perpetual Sabbath” which He brings to those who trust in Him.
Here are seven considerations I have taken into account to help shape my views in this area.
PAUL SAYS LET NO ONE PASS JUDGEMENT ON YOU REGARDING A SABBATH AS IT IS A SHADOW OF THINGS TO COME WHILE THE SUBSTANCE IS OF CHRIST (Col. 2:16–17, ESV paraphrased)
Other translations such as the NRSV say “let no one condemn you in matters of .. Sabbaths”. This is a heavy blow to the SDAs and even to other denominations who force strict observance of ceasing work on their new Sabbath called Sunday.
There are a few things to note regarding this verse. SDAS will try and argue it relates to Sabbaths linked to festivals or the “Sabbath years” such as in Leviticus 25:2 where the land would rest. It is not uncommon for the Sabbath and new moon to be mentioned together in the Old Testament. In the story of Elisha and the Shunammite’s son we read “it is neither new moon nor Sabbath” (2 Kings 4:23). In Lamentations 2:6 we read “the LORD has made Zion forget festival and Sabbath” while in Hosea 2:11 we read God will put an end to Israel’s new moons and Sabbaths. Furthermore, God claims to hate Israel’s new moons, festivals, Sabbaths and sacrifices in Isaiah 1:13 as their heart is not right before Him. Isaiah 66:23 says from “new moon to new moon and from Sabbath to Sabbath” people from everywhere will worship God which echoes similar language in Ezekiel 46:3.
This is highly important as it shows the weekly Sabbath, “Sabbath to Sabbath”, was mentioned with the new moon multiple times, suggesting that Paul also had the weekly Sabbath in mind in this passage and not just “Sabbath years” or Sabbaths linked to festivals. The Sabbath is referred to as “a Sabbath” in Matt. 24:20 and is used in plural form in the passages above meaning we do not need to see the exact words “the Sabbath” to assume Sabbath observance is being spoken of. Further, Leviticus 23 speaks of the “appointed feasts” (v2) and the first example is “the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest” (v3). The chapter then goes on to discuss the Passover, Firstfruits, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets and Feast of Booths. Indeed, as mentioned Sabbath means to desist or cease so why would Paul use this word if he was trying to exclude the pillar of the Sabbatical system which is the weekly Sabbaths themselves and only talk of the more minor “Sabbaths”?
Some SDAs will use the Isaiah 66:23 passage to try and show there will be Sabbath observance during the millennium. However, this passage in Isaiah mentions the new moon as well which Paul clearly says in Colossians 2:16–17 we should not be condemned about not observing. Moreover, this section of text in Isaiah includes Isaiah 60:14 where the nations bow down at the feet of Israel which in Revelation 3:9, which Christ entirely spiritualises when He speaks of the physical Jews who think they are Jews “but are not” who will bow down at the feet of Gentile Christians! This shows we should be careful of how literal we take certain parts of Isaiah 60–66.
It is interesting Tertullian also addressed this point in 190 AD, “Concerning this he predicts through Isaiah, “‘And there shall be,’ he says, ‘month after month, day after day, and Sabbath after Sabbath, and all flesh shall come to adore in Jerusalem,’ says the Lord” [Is. 66:23, LXX]. We understand this to have been fulfilled in the times of Christ when all flesh — that is, every nation — came to adore, in Jerusalem, God the Father through Jesus Christ his Son. … Thus, therefore, before this temporal Sabbath there was an eternal Sabbath foreshown and foretold (An Answer to the Jews 4).”
Finally regarding this point, when speaking of the “seventh day” (Heb. 4:4), the author of Hebrews is clear the weekly Sabbath was a shadow of the substance to come in Christ. This strengthens the idea that Colossians 2:16–17 would be talking about the substance of the weekly Sabbath, not merely less well known types of Sabbaths, being shadows of Christ. I will add to this point later when I discuss Hebrews 4.
PAUL SAYS EACH PERSON SHOULD BE “FULLY CONVINCED IN HIS OWN MIND” WHETHER OR NOT HE ESTEEMS ONE DAY BETTER THAN ANOTHER OR ALL DAYS ALIKE (Rom. 14:5–6)
Let’s be realistic. Would Ellen White or an SDA say you shouldn’t consider the Sabbath day better than another? Absolutely not! This should then raise some question marks as to how readily you accept SDA teaching in this area.
Again, SDAs try and work around this passage by claiming it relates to festivals. However, Paul is clear this relates to how we esteem “all days” (Rom. 14:5), meaning it is impossible to exclude the Sabbath from this discussion. In addition, in verse 6 Paul refers to the “one who observes the day” which would make sense to include Sabbath observance under this as it is a “day” observed weekly.
It is interesting in Romans 14 Paul discusses food and drink just as he does in Colossians 2, indicating that the Sabbath just like the Jewish food laws were a shadow of things to come. Some SDAs will respond and claim non Sabbath keepers still observe Sunday as being holier than the other days. However, I do not hold to this view. There are patterns of Sunday worship in the New Testament we will discuss soon but there is nothing about Sunday being “holier” than other days in the New Testament, it was simply a day of gathering in memory of Christ for the new life He brought which we experience daily. Indeed, Christ ushered in a new Sabbath rest for those who believe in Him and this spans all days of the week. I will add to this point when discussing Hebrew 4.
An additional argument some use to support Sabbath observance is Christ’s comment in Matt. 24:20 “pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath” indicating believers will observe the Sabbath at the end of time. This has multiple flaws. First, Christ is discussing a temple which existed in front of the disciples (Matt. 24:1–3). Second, this was destroyed in 70 AD within one generation of Christ’s prophecy, just as He predicted (Matt. 24:34). Third, to a first century Jewish audience it made perfect sense to them at the time Jesus was claiming that the Sabbath, just like the winter would be a time of limited mobility given the Jewish focus of the city.
PAUL SAYS OBSERVING DAYS AND MONTHS AND SEASONS AND YEARS IS “WEAK AND WORTHLESS” (Gal. 4:9–11)
When we combine what we read in this passage with Romans 14 and Colossians 2 we get quite a clear picture that the entire Sabbatical and Jewish festival system, whether it relates to days and holidays observed weekly such as the Sabbath, annually such as various festivals or even every seven years such as the Shemitah year, do not need to be strictly observed. The umbrella Paul applies in all of these passages is broad. This in consistent with the Old Testament broad treatment of these days and festivals as outlined in point 1 and illustrated in passages such as 1 Chronicles 23:31 where burnt offerings were made on Sabbaths, new moons and feast days. SDAs undoubtedly do strictly observe a “special day” which goes at odds against what Paul is talking about here.
SDAs respond by pointing out that the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments while the others are not. It is fascinating that when Christ was asked about the greatest commandment, He quoted from in Matthew 22:36–39 and not even from the Ten Commandments. As New Testament Christians, we read the Old Testament in light of the New, not the other way around and stating we must keep the Sabbath because it is one of the Ten Commandments even though the New Testament illustrates Christians worshipped on the first day of the week and saw the Sabbath as a shadow of the perpetual Sabbath we find in Christ is not a compelling enough argument for a New Testament Christian. If all Jesus was talking about in keeping His commandments were the Ten Commandments why does He say in John 13:34 “a new command I give to you”? 1 John speaks of obeying Jesus’ commands throughout which SDAs love to note, however, they miss the point that the commandments referred to are spelled out in 1 John 3:23- to believe in the name of Jesus and love one another. No reference to the Ten Commandments in there.
Another comment SDAs like to add is that the Sabbath is “holy” (Gen. 2:1–3) and a “covenant forever” (Exodus 31:16). Yet, even circumcision was described as an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:13) and the bronze basin in the tabernacle is described as being a “statute forever” (Ex. 30:21) and SDAs don’t observe these. Indeed, the “appointed feasts of the LORD” are also called holy (Lev. 23:2) and statutes “forever” (Lev. 23:14).
HEBREWS 4 SPEAKS OF THE SABBATH OF THE SABBATH AS BEING FULFILLED IN CHRIST
We have already mentioned in point 1 how Colossians 2 speaks of Sabbaths as a shadow of things to come and Hebrews 4 reinforces that idea. Hebrews is all about types and shadows. Moses is discussed in chapter 3, Melchizedek in chapters 5 and 7, the old covenant in chapter 8 and the holy place and sacrifices in chapters 9 and 10 to name a few. Contextually speaking, it is noteworthy that the “seventh day” Sabbath (Heb. 4:4) is discussed along with all of these other types and shadows.
SDAs like to point out verse 9 that there “remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God”. However, reading this in context, this “Sabbath rest” is different in nature to what the Jews experienced as verse 8 explains Joshua had not truly given them rest but spoke of a time later on. Verse 10 is crucial in understanding this chapter and speaks of the one who has “entered God’s rest [and] has also rested from his works as God did from his”. On this basis we may “strive to enter that rest” so that we may not fall as did the people of Israel at Meribah of whom God swore, “they will not enter my rest” (Psalm 95:11).
Contextually it makes sense to interpret this as Christ who, modelling the Father’s rest after creative work, now rests after His redemptive work was completed when He rose on the first day of the week (John 20:1–9; Mark 16:9). Jesus is spoken of in Hebrews as “having passed through the heavens” (4:14), being a “forerunner on our behalf” (6:20), appearing in the presence of God on our behalf (9:24) while being the founder of salvation in bringing many sons to glory (2:10). Moreover, 4:10 uses a singular and historic tense as opposed to verse 11 which uses a plural and future tense indicating Christ lays forth and makes possible the future Sabbath rest for many.
It is interesting in John 5 that Jesus when questioned about healing on the Sabbath responds, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” John then adds in verse 18, “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.” Evidently, Christ saw the Sabbath as pointing to something larger than a strict legalistic observance, indicating that His real work was not yet complete as He was not yet able to rest.
Indeed, this Sabbath rest culminates in our glorification, however, “today” is the day of salvation (Heb. 4:7) and we “must strive to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:11) from now. Christ brings rest to those who labour and are heavy laden (Matt. 11:28) and we cross from death to eternal life when we believe (John 5:29). Let us treasure therefore the perpetual Sabbath rest which Christ has made possible for us and look forward to the time this is made complete at His return while knowing that despite the challenges of this life, the opportunity for rest in Christ begins today.
The fact the Sabbath points to something great made possible through Christ, much like sacrifices, illustrates we should not get caught up in strict religiosity regarding the Sabbath but, in the words of Paul, remember it is a shadow of things to come while the substance is of Christ.
NONE OF THE LISTS OF THE “FLESH” OR OF PEOPLE WHO WON’T INHERIT THE KINGDOM OF GOD MENTION PEOPLE WHO DON’T KEEP THE SABBATH
Ellen White held that the mark of the beast was forced Sunday worship which based off Revelation 14:9–11, indicates damnation will result from this. However, this is at odds with the rest of the New Testament teaching, including other parts of Revelation itself. Revelation 21:8 and 22:15 mention those who are outside the gates. While some of the Ten Commandments are alluded to through referring to murderers, liars and so forth. We also have other commandments alluded to such as not practising sorcery which is not one of the ten. Nevertheless, not even a hint of a mention of people who don’t observe the Sabbath.
We see similar lists in 1 Cor. 6:9–11, Galatians 5:19–21 and 1 Tim. 1:9–10 but there is never any explicit mention of a failure to observe the Sabbath as dictating eternal fate. This is truly fascinating if given, Ellen White’s teaching, Sabbath observance is what differentiates the godly from the ungodly at the end of time.
THERE IS STRONG EVIDENCE OF WEEKLY SUNDAY GATHERINGS (NOT REST DAYS!) IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Acts 20:7 speaks of when believers were “gathered together to break bread” on the first day of the week. They gathered to break bread, not worship the sun just as those who rested on the Sabbath in the Old Testament worshipped Yahweh not Saturn. A common response to this is that believers “broke bread” daily in Acts 2:46, so it is insignificant to mention they broke bread on the first day of the week.
This is an implausible argument. First, the time SDAs allude to where there was daily worship was quite a few years before this event recorded in Acts 20 and there is no indication in Acts 20 they were gathering daily at that time and place. Second, one must ask why only the first day of the week is the only day specifically mentioned for “breaking bread” in the whole book. There is no explicit mention of breaking bread on the second or third day of the week or even the Sabbath. This is an important point which cannot be missed as Luke seems to be laying down what was a specific practice of gathering on the first day of the week for breaking bread.
SDAs love to respond that Paul “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath” (Acts 18:4). Nevertheless, this was a means of persuading Jews (Acts 18:4) and Christ refers to those who are of the synagogue of Satan in Rev. 3:9 who think they are Jews but are not. This means we must be wary of trying to use a pattern of evangelising Jews as setting Christian worship patterns. Indeed, Luke adds that the Jews reviled Paul so he then went on to evangelising Gentiles (Acts 18:6) after being rejected by Sabbath following Jews.
1 Cor 16:1–2 reinforces this idea of gathering on the first day of the week as that was when the collection for the saints took place as was practiced in “the churches of Galatia” as well. How baffling is throughout all these churches they had collections taking place on the first day of the week when they all supposedly met on the Sabbath! Why does Paul mention the first day of the week as a day to set something aside so there be no collections when he comes and not the second or third day of the week or even the Sabbath? It is also interesting to note the Greek work for Sunday Kyriaki Hemera literally means Lord’s Day.
Trying to skirt around the reason why the first day of the week might be mentioned here, SDAs point out this is simply a private “setting aside”. However, Paul is clear this practice is to be in place that there be “no collecting” when he comes (1 Cor. 16:2), indicating there is some sort of physical collection process involved as part of this “setting aside”. This could, for example, look like depositing money into a common treasury so that when a “saint” arrives he can take the money where it is needed. It would only make sense to deposit into a common treasury on a day you are all together, especially if it is a practice across multiple churches!
THERE IS STRONG EVIDENCE THE FULFILLMENT OF THE SABBATH IN CHRIST AND FIRST DAY OF THE WEEK WORSHIP WERE TAUGHT AND PRACTICED INTO THE SECOND CENTURY
Ellen White is quoted, “I saw that God had not changed the Sabbath, for He never changes. But the pope had changed it from the seventh to the first day of the week; for he was to change times and laws (Early Writings, p. 32)”. If you take this argument to indicate believers met on the Sabbath until this “law change” in the fourth century, then that is patently false.
Ignatius taught, roughly within 20 years of when Revelation which refers to the “Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10) was written, that believers were “no longer observing the Sabbath but living in observance of the Lord’s day” (Letter to the Magnesians 9, 110 AD).
In the letter of Barnabas we read, “Further, he says to them, “Your new moons and Sabbaths I cannot endure.” You understand what he’s saying. Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but the Sabbath I have made is. When I give rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day; that is, a beginning of another world. Therefore we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose from the dead (Letter of Barnabas 15)”. This echoes the teaching of Colossians 2 and Hebrews 4 of the perpetual Sabbath ushered in by Christ.
The Letter to Diognetus (AD. 80–200) adds, “But as to their meticulousness concerning foods, their superstition regarding the Sabbaths, their boasting about circumcision, and their fancies about fasting and the new moons.. are utterly ridiculous and unworthy of notice”.
Justin Martyr in 150 AD wrote, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place … Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world. On the same day, Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead (First Apology 67)”.
Irenaeus in c. 183–186 AD adds, “there will be no command to remain idle for one day of rest, to him who perpetually keeps sabbath, that is to say, who in the temple of God, which is man’s body, does service to God, and in every hour works righteousness”. Moreover, Clement of Alexandria also calls Sunday the Lord’s day in c. 190AD, while Tertullian remarked in c.200 AD, “Others … suppose that the sun is the God of the Christians because it is a well-known fact that we pray towards the east or because we make Sunday a day of festivity. (Ad Nationes 13).” Perhaps we could have put Ellen White into this “others” category.
This historical evidence shows without a doubt that early Christians were not the devout seventh day Sabbath keepers Ellen White would have liked us to think they were. Indeed, Christ is Lord of the Sabbath and also of all days (Mark 2:28; Colossians 1:15–20), meaning Christ has the power over the law that He came not to abolish but to fulfil (Matt. 5:18). It is a beautiful thing that through the Old Testament Sabbath we see a shadow of the “perpetual Sabbath” ushered in by Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week on which Christians then began to gather on (the Lord’s day as historically understood by early Christians), founded on the gateway the resurrection opened for spiritual rest and eternal life for those who place their trust in Christ, the One who has already entered His rest after His redemptive work on the cross just as the Godhead rested following Their work at creation.