It is often claimed that “God instituted the Sabbath in Eden” because of the connection between the Sabbath and creation in Exodus 20:11. Although God’s rest on the seventh day (Genesis 2:3) did foreshadow a future Sabbath law, there is no biblical record of the Sabbath before the children of Israel left the land of Egypt. Nowhere in Scripture is there any hint that Sabbath-keeping was practiced from Adam to Moses.
The Word of God makes it quite clear that Sabbath observance was a special sign between God and Israel: “The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested” (Exodus 31:16–17).
In Deuteronomy 5, Moses restates the Ten Commandments to the next generation of Israelites. Here, after commanding Sabbath observance in verses 12–14, Moses gives the reason the Sabbath was given to the nation of Israel: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).
God’s intent for giving the Sabbath to Israel was not that they would remember creation, but that they would remember their Egyptian slavery and the Lord’s deliverance. Note the requirements for Sabbath-keeping: a person placed under that Sabbath law could not leave his home on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:29), he could not build a fire (Exodus 35:3), and he could not cause anyone else to work (Deuteronomy 5:14). A person breaking the Sabbath law was to be put to death (Exodus 31:15; Numbers 15:32–35).
An examination of New Testament passages reveals four important points concerning the Sabbath:
Looking more closely at point 4, above, will reveal that there is no obligation for the New Testament believer to keep the Sabbath and will also show that the idea of a Sunday “Christian Sabbath” is also unscriptural. As mentioned, there is one time the Sabbath is mentioned after Paul began to focus on the Gentiles, “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” (Colossians 2:16–17). The Jewish Sabbath was abolished at the cross where Christ “canceled the written code, with its regulations” (Colossians 2:14).
Our freedom from Sabbath-day regulations is repeated more than once in the New Testament: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord” (Romans 14:5–6a). “But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years” (Galatians 4:9–10).
Some claim that a mandate by Emperor Constantine in AD 321 “changed” the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. On what day did the early church meet for worship? Scripture never mentions any Sabbath (Saturday) gatherings by believers for fellowship or worship. However, there are passages that mention the first day of the week. For instance, Acts 20:7 states that “on the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” In 1 Corinthians 16:2 Paul gives this instruction: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income.” Since Paul designates this offering as “service” in 2 Corinthians 9:12, this collection must have been linked with the Sunday worship service of the Christian assembly. Historically, Sunday, not Saturday, was the normal meeting day for Christians in the church, and its practice dates back to the first century.
The Sabbath was given to Israel, not the church. The Sabbath is still Saturday, not Sunday, and has never been changed. The Sabbath is part of the Old Testament Law, and Christians are free from the bondage of the law (Galatians 4:1–26; Romans 6:14). Sabbath-keeping is not required of the Christian—be it Saturday or Sunday. The first day of the week, Sunday, the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10), celebrates the new creation, with Christ as our resurrected Savior. The apostle Paul said that each individual Christian should decide whether to observe a Sabbath rest: “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). We are to worship God every day, not just on Saturday or Sunday.