I was recently asked: One of the 10 Commandments is to keep the Sabbath. The Sabbath, according to the Old Testament, is on Saturday. Why don’t Christians observe the Sabbath, when Exodus 31:16 says the Sabbath should be a perpetual covenant, and instead worship God on Sunday?
When handling questions like this it is important that we are clear on what the passage is stating, this is why context is important.
My first thought was, “What does perpetual covenant mean?” Since I haven’t learned Hebrew I had to turn to my commentaries instead.
Wilbur Fields in his commentary on Exodus wrote, “Israel was to keep it ‘throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.’ ‘perpetual covenant’ is literally ‘a covenant for distant future.’ It does not necessarily mean ‘for an endless future eternity.” (Bible Study Textbook: Exploring Exodus, p. 698)
To me this helps explain why the command to keep the Sabbath day is not repeated in the New Testament. Outside of the Gospels, where we see Jesus often challenging the religious leaders traditions regarding the Sabbath, the Sabbath is mentioned two times. The first time it is mentioned is by the apostle Paul in Colossians 2:16; “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.” (ESV)
N. T. Wright wrote; “These rules of diet and ritual marked out the Jew from his pagan neighbors. Failure to observe them implied that one did not belong to God’s people.” (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Colossians and Philemon, p. 119). It appears to me what Paul is saying is that we are not to judge a person’s place in the Kingdom based on whether or not they keep the food laws or the Sabbath.
The second time it is mentioned is in the book of Hebrews; “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (Hebrews 4:8-10; ESV) There is a Sabbath rest that awaits God’s people.
William Lane wrote; “In Hebrews the promise of rest is sharply focused on the unending festivity and praise of a Sabbath celebration at the consummation of history.” (Hebrews: A Call to Commitment; p. 68) The Sabbath we are to look forward to is the Sabbath that comes with the completion of the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:1).
Another piece of the puzzle is found in understanding what the Sabbath celebrated and what is celebrated on the Lord’s Day. The Sabbath was a celebration of God’s creative work in making the universe and as the Creator honoring Him as King. This is why the Sabbath was on Saturday, because that was the day God rested from His work.
On the Lord’s Day we celebrate Jesus and his resurrection. Jesus is the “firstfruits” (1 Corinthians 15:23) of God’s new creative work (2 Corinthians 5:17). On the Lord’s Day we are still celebrating God’s creative work, but now we are celebrating the creative work that He is doing through Jesus Christ. We are promised a Sabbath rest, but in the mean time we are to join God in the redeeming work He is doing in the world.