A Sundaykeeper told me that since in the Bible the Sabbath was a day of rest, not of worship, the Sabbath found its fulfillment in our rest of grace in Christ, making it unnecessary to keep it today. Is this argument biblically correct?
The arguments that you have summarized are used by most evangelical Christians as well as by Catholics to argue that Christians are no longer required to rest on any day. They go on to argue that Christians choose to worship, not to rest, on Sunday, adding that it was impossible for Christians in Roman society to have a day of rest. Here are three key concepts that suggest otherwise.
SABBATH IS A DAY OF REST AND WORSHIP
Clearly the Sabbath was a day of rest as a memorial of God’s rest at Creation (Ex. 20:8-11; Gen. 2:1-3). What is not correct is to affirm that it was not a day of worship. First, by disconnecting the Sabbath from worship, it becomes a secular day during which people simply take a free day to stay at home. Such secular understanding of time is unknown in the Bible. Second, the Bible closely connects rest and worship. Exodus clearly establishes that the Sabbath was a day of rest (Ex. 20:8-10), and then it provides the reason for considering it a day of worship: It is the day to remember the Creator who blessed and sanctified it (verse 11). In Deuteronomy the Sabbath is a day of rest (Deut. 5:13, 14) and a day of worship during which we are to remember our redemption (verse 15). Remembering our Creator and redemption lies at the very core of biblical worship.
SABBATH IS ALWAYS A DAY OF REST AND WORSHIP
The conviction that since Sabbath rest was set aside when Christ fulfilled it lacks biblical support. No biblical passage shows that Christ anticipated the setting aside of the Sabbath. In fact, He anticipated that His followers would keep the fourth commandment (e.g., Matt. 24:20). For Jesus, the Sabbath was not just a day of rest but particularly a day of worship during which He pointed to His Father as a merciful and loving God. Even the Old Testament itself anticipated the permanency of the fourth commandment. Isaiah described the Sabbath as a day of fellowship with the Lord (Isa. 58:13, 14), and looking into the eschatological times, when the Lord will create a new heaven and a new earth, he quoted the Lord as saying, “From new moon to new moon [every month] and from Sabbath to Sabbath [every Sabbath] all mankind will come to bow down [to worship] before Me,’ says the Lord” (Isa. 66:23, NASB).¹ The biblical combination of rest and worship during the Sabbath and the universalization of the commandment should not be ignored.
SABBATH MEANT REST AND WORSHIP AMONG EARLY CHRISTIANS
It has been argued that in Roman society having a day of rest was practically impossible. This is hardly the case. The historical evidence we have demonstrates that the Jewish Sabbath was so well known throughout the empire that many non-Jews rested on the Sabbath, probably for superstitious reasons.² The New Testament shows that there were Gentile Sabbathkeepers, called “godfearers” (e.g., Acts 10; 13:16; 17:4). They benefited from the rights granted to the Jews by the Roman government to rest and worship during the Sabbath.³ Therefore it is groundless to argue that in Roman society it was impossible to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship.
Rest in Christ is not incompatible with keeping the Sabbath, because it is a memorial of His work of the redemption that fills our heart with love and that moves us to bow down before Him in worship.
¹ Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995, 2020 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.
² See Victor A. Tcherikover, “The Sambathions,” in Corpus Papyorum Judaicurum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), vol. 3, pp. 43-53.
³ See Irina Levinskaya, “Godfearers,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, 5 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), vol. 2, pp. 619, 620.