As we saw earlier, the Old Testament Sabbath was a sign. We saw that many of the Old Testaments signs were transformed in the New Testament. Is this the case with Sabbath? Or does the New Testament teach that we are to celebrate the Sabbath exactly as it is in the Old Covenant? We will look at two passages to help us understand this, Hebrews 4 and Colossians 2:16.
In Hebrews 4 the author is comparing the present generation of Christians with the generation that refused to enter the Promise land. Throughout the passage, we are told to not be like the Israelites who did not believe and did not obey (See 3:19 and 4:6). Instead we are to exercise our faith and enter into the promised rest. The word for “rest” in Hebrews 4:9 is sabbitismos, which means “keeping the Sabbath.” 4:9 can be translated, “There is still a Sabbath-keeping for the people of God.” At first glance, this might appear to be a good case for the continuation of the Sabbath in the New Covenant. However, this passage has nothing to do with worshiping on a specific day or keeping the Old Testament Sabbath regulations. It has to do with faith in Christ. We are told to enter “his rest.” (4:1). Who are the ones who enter the rest? Those who have believed. (4:3) What day is the day to enter God’s rest? Today. (4:6-7) What happens to those who enter that rest? They come boldly to the throne of grace. (4:11-16) So here we have the Old Testament Sabbath fulfilled in those who believe upon Christ, rest from their works and obey his commands. This passage does not teach that we should continue observing the Old Testament Sabbath. In fact, it points us to the reality that the Sabbath was but a shadow of, Jesus Christ.
Colossians 2:16-17 also shows that the Old Testament Sabbath has been transformed by Christ. Here are those verses: “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”
The phrase, “festival, new moon or Sabbaths” was a common way of referring to the various Jewish holy days. The exact same phrase is used in Ezekiel 45:17 and Hosea 2:11. They go in descending order from yearly celebrations (festivals) to monthly celebrations (new moon) to weekly celebrations (Sabbaths).
Paul says two important things about these holy days. First, no one should be judged as to whether they keep or observe these days. Observance of these holy days is no longer required. Second, these days belong to the shadow, the Old Covenant ways, which have been fulfilled in Christ. The shadows are gone. The reality is here. That is why we no longer celebrate the feast days from the Old Testament. These days can teach us about Christ and his work. But they have been transformed by Christ. Our feast days, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost and Ascension Day revolve around Christ and his work and are not mandatory. There are obvious parallels with the Old Testament feasts, but we do not celebrate the shadows. We celebrate the reality.
Both Hebrews 4 and Colossians 2:16-17 teach that the Old Testament Sabbath has been fulfilled and transformed with coming of Christ. So from the teaching in the Old Testament and the New Testament we see that the Sabbath was a sign. Like other signs, the outward form (Saturday) was done away with, but the central meaning of rest was not lost.
Lack of Sabbath Observance in the New Testament
I wanted to add one more point. This point by itself is not strong. But when combined with the previous sections it provides additional weight to the idea that the Old Covenant Sabbath has been transformed.
Despite the great theological weight the Old Testament places on the Sabbath, observance of the Old Testament Sabbath is insignificant for Christians in the New Testament. Following the resurrection of Christ, there is no reference to Christians observing the Sabbath. There are no commands to keep the Sabbath. Paul has numerous lists of sins (See Ephesians 4:17-32, I Timothy 1:8-11, II Timothy 3:1-5). Sabbath breaking is never mentioned. The Sabbath simply evaporates from the Christian record, except as a day to evangelize the Jews. (See Acts 13:14, 16:13 and 18:4) It is hard to explain this other than that the New Testament Christians knew that the Resurrection of Christ changed the day of worship.
Really appreciated your series of posts on the Sabbath. Made me ponder afresh why we worship when we do and what should be the manner and reason for our worship.