In the Old Testament God commanded His people to honor the Sabbath by keeping it holy, and He further said that they must not do any work on the Sabbath day. (Exodus 20:8-11) God’s command was serious enough that He warned them in Exodus 35 that “whoever does any work on it (the Sabbath) shall be put to death,” and later a man who was discovered picking up sticks in violation of the Sabbath was put to death. (Numbers 15:32-36) With a command so serious and a penalty so severe, should we care about whether or not we as followers of Christ are called to keep the Sabbath? You bet we should! None of us should have a heart so calloused as to not care about whether or not we are faithfully keeping what God has commanded His people. And yet, when we look at the vast majority of Christ’s Church here on earth now, most do not keep a literal Sabbath day of rest, and even fewer keep that day of rest on Saturday (which would have been the original Sabbath day).
So then, we can look at this topic in two important ways: first theologically, “How do followers of Christ keep the Sabbath?” and second practically, “What does it look like for followers of Christ to apply the Sabbath to their lives today?” To start answering these questions let us also keep in mind that the Old and New Testaments are part of one Bible, meaning that it is not enough to answer the question by simply looking at the New Testament and ignoring the Old. Jesus said in Matthew 5 “do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” So in some way believers through Christ do have a relationship with the Old Testament Law. Furthermore, when the apostle Peter argues for the authority of Paul’s letters, he does so by equating them with the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures, which also validates their continued role in the Church. (2 Peter 3:14-18) The God of the New Testament is still the God of the Old Testament.
And, while that is true, something profound has changed. In the Old Testament God commanded a Law that no one could perfectly keep, but that God’s people very much so had the responsibility to obey. Nehemiah recounted that God “came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments.” (Nehemiah 9:13) Their inability to keep God’s Law was not because God’s Law was at fault, but because people are simply that broken. (Romans 7:13-25) God is good, and He commanded good things, but we are sin-bound and unable to follow His commands perfectly, including the command to keep the Sabbath. So how then will we keep the Sabbath if they couldn’t? Again, the answer comes in knowing what has changed from then to now.
The thing that has changed from the Old Testament to the New is that Christ has come. Not only did Jesus die on the cross to pay the penalty we deserved for all of our sins, but Jesus also kept the Law of God perfectly and we who put our faith in Him gain His righteousness. (Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31) Moreover, as Paul says in Romans 10:4: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” The righteousness of God, which none could earn through keeping the Law, is now gained by faith in the living Son of God, Jesus Christ, who is himself the Lord of the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:8) And alongside that, for those of us who are in Christ, God has put His moral law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33) and we fulfill the Law through loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and by loving our neighbor as ourselves. (Mark 12:28-34; Galatians 5:14) In fact, it is actually wrong for those who have faith in Christ to try and satisfy the Law’s demands as it was intended to be obeyed in the times of the Old Testament. (Galatians 5:4)
So then, now that Christ has come, this is how believers satisfy the Sabbath: by trusting wholly in God through faith in Christ for his perfect righteousness and by resting completely from trying to add anything of our own to merit salvation. Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath in obedience to the Law far better than we ever could, and we rest in what he has already done.