Sabbath is from the Hebrew word for “seven.” The Sabbath day is the seventh day of the week—Saturday. The word Sabbath has also become associated with the concept of rest. For instance, a professor may take a sabbatical—a temporary leave from teaching.
Observance of the Sabbath (seventh) day is one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8–11: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
The Sabbath rule was clearly a command for ancient Israel, but Sabbatarianism teaches that today’s Christians should observe the Sabbath. A Sabbatarian is a professed Christian who observes the Sabbath. Groups with “Seventh Day” in their names are Sabbatarian groups (e.g., Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Baptists). The reasons and significance of Sabbath observance run the gamut from those who simply believe that this is something that pleases God to those who make it a requirement for salvation to groups who see worship on Sunday (instead of Saturday) as the mark of the beast.
The issue is further complicated by some Christians who believe that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath” and that prohibitions against work have been transferred from Saturday to Sunday. This belief used to be far more common in the United States than it is today and was reflected in “blue laws,” which restricted certain activities on Sunday, and the fact that many, if not most, businesses (including gas stations) were closed on Sundays. It was not uncommon for older Christian writers to refer to Sunday as “the Sabbath,” and some even referred to themselves as “Sabbatarians,” so the modern reader must carefully discern whether the writer is a Saturday or a Sunday “Sabbatarian.” Modern Sabbatarians are Saturday observers.
Several points concerning Sabbatarianism need to be made:
1. Nowhere in the New Testament is Sunday called a “Christian Sabbath.” Christians are never commanded to cease from work on Sunday. Sunday is the Christian day of worship because Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Luke 24:1). It was the early Christians’ practice to meet together on Sunday (Acts 20:7), but, even then, no New Testament command establishes Sunday as a day of rest and/or worship.
2. The early church struggled with how to apply the Law of Moses to believing Jews and Gentiles. Some felt that believing Jews and Gentiles must obey the law for salvation (Acts 15:1). Others thought that keeping the law should be the standard of Christian behavior, but it was not a means of or requirement for salvation (Acts 15:5). Some believed that believing Jews needed to continue to keep the law but Gentiles were not required to do so. And some believed that no believers, Jew or Gentile, were under obligation to observe the Sabbath or any of the Old Covenant Law. The apostle Paul falls into this last category:
• Romans 14:5: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.” (In other words, Sabbath observance is not a moral issue but one of personal preference and freedom. One cannot imagine Paul saying, “One man is faithful to his wife and another has several mistresses. Each one should be firmly convinced in his own mind what he should do.”) If a person wants to observe the Sabbath (on Saturday or Sunday) as a healthy practice, that is fine—but it is a personal decision.
• 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.”
3. The Sabbath day was meant to foreshadow God’s rest in Christ available to the Christian. While having a day of rest was/is a blessing, it is a far greater blessing to rest in the salvation that Christ offers. “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:9–11). The context is clear that the rest spoken of is salvation in Christ. The disobedience spoken of is a refusal to believe what God has promised. If a person has stopped trying to earn salvation but simply rests in Christ’s finished work, he or she is “keeping the Sabbath” as God intends. Ironically, those who insist that one must keep the Sabbath law to be saved are actually working when they should be resting, and thus denying themselves the true Sabbath rest.
Sabbatarianism should not be confused with Sabbatianism or Sabbateanism, which was a movement in Judaism spurred by the messianic claims of the Ottoman Jew Sabbatai Tsevi (1626—1676).