Must Christians Keep the Sabbath?
The Bible’s answer
Christians are not required to observe a weekly sabbath. Christians are under “the law of the Christ,” which does not include keeping the Sabbath. (Galatians 6:2; Colossians 2:16, 17) Why can we be certain of that? First, consider the origin of the Sabbath.
What is the Sabbath?
The word “sabbath” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to rest; to cease.” It first appears in the Bible in commands given to the nation of ancient Israel. (Exodus 16:23) For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments says: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it sacred. You are to labor and do all your work for six days, but the seventh day is a sabbath to Jehovah your God. You must not do any work.” (Exodus 20:8-10) The Sabbath day ran from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. During that time, the Israelites could not leave their locality, light a fire, gather wood, or carry a load. (Exodus 16:29; 35:3; Numbers 15:32-36;Jeremiah 17:21) Violating the Sabbath was a capital offense.—Exodus 31:15.
Some other days in the Jewish calendar, as well as the 7th and 50th years, were also called sabbaths. In Sabbath years, the land was to lie uncultivated and Israelites could not be pressed to repay debts.—Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:6, 7, 32; 25:4, 11-14; Deuteronomy 15:1-3.
Why doesn’t the Sabbath law apply to Christians?
The Sabbath law applied only to the people subject to the rest of the Law given through Moses. (Deuteronomy 5:2, 3; Ezekiel 20:10-12) God never required other people to observe a sabbath rest. In addition, even the Jews were “released from the Law” of Moses, including the Ten Commandments, by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. (Romans 7:6, 7; 10:4;Galatians 3:24, 25; Ephesians 2:15) Rather than adhere to the Law of Moses, Christians follow the superior law of love.—Romans 13:9, 10; Hebrews 8:13.
Misconceptions about the Sabbath
Misconception: It is wrong to set aside one day every week for rest and worship.
Fact: The Bible leaves such a decision to each Christian.—Romans 14:5.
Why Do Jesus’ Disciples Not Fast?
MATTHEW 9:14-17 MARK 2:18-22 LUKE 5:33-39
JOHN’S DISCIPLES ASK JESUS ABOUT FASTING
John the Baptist has been in prison since some time after Jesus attended the Passover of 30 C.E. John wanted his disciples to become followers of Jesus, but not all of them have done so in the months following John’s imprisonment.
Now, as the Passover of 31 C.E. approaches, some of John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask: “Why do we and the Pharisees practice fasting but your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14) The Pharisees practice fasting as a religious ritual. Later, Jesus even uses an illustration in which one Pharisee self-righteously prays: “O God, I thank you that I am not like everyone else . . . I fast twice a week.” (Luke 18:11, 12) John’s disciples may similarly have been fasting as a custom. Or they may have been fasting to mourn John’s imprisonment. Observers also wonder why Jesus’ disciples do not fast, perhaps joining in an expression of grief over what has been done to John.
Jesus answers using an example: “The friends of the bridegroom have no reason to mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, do they? But days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”—Matthew 9:15.
John himself spoke of Jesus as a bridegroom. (John 3:28, 29) Accordingly, while Jesus is present, Jesus’ disciples do not fast. Later, when Jesus dies, his disciples will mourn and have no desire to eat. What a change, though, when he is resurrected! Then they will have no further cause for mournful fasting.
Next, Jesus gives these two illustrations: “Nobody sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old outer garment, for the new piece pulls away from the garment and the tear becomes worse. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins. If they do, then the wineskins burst and the wine spills out and the wineskins are ruined. But people put new wine into new wineskins.” (Matthew 9:16, 17) What is Jesus’ point?
Jesus is helping the disciples of John the Baptist to appreciate that no one should expect Jesus’ followers to conform to the old practices of Judaism, such as ritual fasting. He did not come to patch up and prolong an old, worn-out way of worship, a whole system of worship that was ready to be discarded. The worship that Jesus is encouraging is not one that conforms to the Judaism of the day with its traditions of men. No, he is not trying to put a new patch on an old garment or new wine into a stiff, old wineskin.
Can One Do Good Works on the Sabbath?
JESUS PREACHES IN JUDEA
HE HEALS A SICK MAN AT A POOL
Jesus has accomplished a lot during his great ministry in Galilee. However, in saying, “I must also declare the good news of the Kingdom of God to other cities,” Jesus has in mind more than just Galilee. Thus, he goes “preaching in the synagogues of Judea.” (Luke 4:43, 44) This is logical because it is now spring and a festival in Jerusalem is approaching.
Compared with what we read of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, we find little in the Gospels about his activity in Judea. Even if the general reaction in Judea is apathetic, it does not stop Jesus from preaching actively and doing good works wherever he is.
Soon Jesus is heading to Judea’s principal city, Jerusalem, for the Passover of 31 C.E. In the busy area near the Sheep Gate, there is a large colonnaded pool called Bethzatha. Many sick, blind, and lame come to this pool. Why? Because it is commonly believed that people can be healed by getting into the pool when the water is agitated.
It is now the Sabbath, and Jesus sees a man at this pool who has been sick for 38 years. Jesus asks: “Do you want to get well?” The man answers: “Sir, I do not have anyone to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am on my way, another steps down ahead of me.”—John 5:6, 7.
Jesus says something that must surprise the man and anyone else who hears it: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” (John 5:8) And that is exactly what he does. Immediately healed, the man picks up his mat and begins to walk!
Rather than rejoice over the wonderful thing that has happened, the Jews see the man and say judgmentally: “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to carry the mat.” The man answers them: “The same one who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” (John 5:10, 11) Those Jews are critical of someone who is healing on the Sabbath.
“Who is the man who told you, ‘Pick it up and walk’?” they want to know. Why do they ask the man that? Because Jesus has “slipped away into the crowd,” and the healed man does not know Jesus’ name. (John 5:12, 13) But this man is to have another encounter with Jesus. Later, in the temple, the man meets Jesus and learns the identity of the one who healed him at the pool.
The man who was healed finds the Jews who had asked him about his being made well. He tells them that it was Jesus. On learning this, the Jews go to Jesus. Do they go to learn by what means Jesus is able to do such wonderful things? No. It is, rather, to find fault with Jesus for doing good things on the Sabbath. And they even begin persecuting him!
What Is Lawful on the Sabbath?
MATTHEW 12:9-14 MARK 3:1-6 LUKE 6:6-11
HEALING A MAN’S HAND ON THE SABBATH
On another Sabbath, Jesus visits a synagogue, likely in Galilee. There he finds a man whose right hand is withered. (Luke 6:6) The scribes and the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely. Why? They reveal what their real intent is when they ask: “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?”—Matthew 12:10.
The Jewish religious leaders believe that healing is lawful on the Sabbath only if life is in danger. Thus, for example, on the Sabbath it is unlawful to set a bone or bandage a sprain, conditions that are not life threatening. Clearly the scribes and the Pharisees are not questioning Jesus because they feel genuine concern for this poor man’s suffering. They are trying to find a pretext for condemning Jesus.
Jesus, however, knows their twisted reasoning. He realizes that they have adopted an extreme, unscriptural view of what constitutes a violation of the prohibition against doing work on the Sabbath. (Exodus 20:8-10) He has already faced such misplaced criticism of his good works. Now Jesus sets the stage for a dramatic confrontation by telling the man with the withered hand: “Get up and come to the center.”—Mark 3:3.
Turning to the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus says: “If you have one sheep and that sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath, is there a man among you who will not grab hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11) A sheep represents a financial investment, so they would not leave it in the pit until the next day; it might die in the meantime and thus cause them loss. Besides, the Scriptures say: “The righteous one takes care of his domestic animals.”—Proverbs 12:10.
Drawing a reasonable parallel, Jesus continues: “How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do a fine thing on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:12) Accordingly, Jesus would not be violating the Sabbath by healing the man. The religious leaders are unable to refute such logical, compassionate reasoning. They just remain silent.
With indignation, as well as grief at their misguided thinking, Jesus looks around. Then he says to the man: “Stretch out your hand.” (Matthew 12:13) As the man stretches out his withered hand, it is restored. That is a cause for joy for the man, but how does it affect those trying to trap Jesus?
Instead of being happy that the man’s hand is restored, the Pharisees go out and immediately conspire “with the party followers of Herod against [Jesus], in order to kill him.” (Mark 3:6) This political party evidently includes members of the religious group called the Sadducees. Ordinarily, the Sadducees and the Pharisees are opposed to each other, but now they are solidly united in their opposition to Jesus.
Fulfilling Isaiah’s Prophecy
MATTHEW 12:15-21 MARK 3:7-12
CROWDS PRESS IN ON JESUS
HE FULFILLS ISAIAH’S PROPHECY
Upon learning that the Pharisees and the party followers of Herod plan to kill him, Jesus and his disciples withdraw to the Sea of Galilee. Great crowds flock to him from all over—from Galilee, the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon, the eastern side of the Jordan River, Jerusalem, and Idumea farther south. Jesus cures many. As a result, those with serious diseases press forward. Not waiting for him to touch them, they eagerly reach out to touch him.—Mark 3:9, 10.
The crowds are so large that Jesus tells his disciples to get a small boat ready for him so that he can pull away from shore and keep the crowds from pressing in on him. Also, he can teach them from the boat or move to another area along the shore to help more people.
The disciple Matthew notes that Jesus’ activity fulfills “what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet.” (Matthew 12:17) What prophecy is Jesus here fulfilling?
“Look! My servant whom I chose, my beloved, whom I have approved! I will put my spirit upon him, and what justice is he will make clear to the nations. He will not quarrel nor cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the main streets. No bruised reed will he crush, and no smoldering wick will he extinguish, until he brings justice with success. Indeed, in his name nations will hope.”—Matthew 12:18-21; Isaiah 42:1-4.
Jesus, of course, is the beloved servant whom God approves. Jesus makes clear what is true justice, which is being obscured by false religious traditions. Unjustly applying God’s Law in their own way, the Pharisees will not even come to a sick person’s aid on the Sabbath! Making evident God’s justice and showing that God’s spirit is upon him, Jesus relieves people of the burden of unjust traditions. For that the religious leaders want to kill him. How deplorable!
What does it mean that “he will not quarrel nor cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the main streets”? When curing people, Jesus does not allow them—or the demons—“to make him known.” (Mark 3:12) He does not want people to learn about him through noisy advertising in the streets or through distorted reports that are excitedly passed from mouth to mouth.
Also, Jesus carries his comforting message to those who are figuratively like a bruised reed, bent over and knocked down. They are like a smoldering wick, whose last spark of life has nearly flickered out. Jesus does not crush the bruised reed or quench the flickering, smoking flax. Rather, with tenderness and love, he skillfully lifts up the meek. Truly, Jesus is the one in whom the nations can hope!