Strange things about this day begin to emerge in the Gospels. Jesus taught in the synagogues on the sabbath, of course (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:16,31), as did the apostles later (Acts 13:14,42,44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4), but this proves nothing in the case, save that the Lord and his disciples took the opportunity of preaching at a time when the Jews were accustomed to come together for worship. What is much more significant is that Jesus did things on the sabbath which awakened the antagonism of the Jewish leaders, and made no apology for doing so
Thus, in face of official opposition, he supported his disciples in gleaning and eating in the cornfields on the sabbath; he restored health to an impotent man and commanded him to carry home his bed; and he made a blind man to see on the same day (Matthew 12:1-12; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-10; 13:10-16; 14:1-5; John 5:8-18; 7:22-23; 9:14-16). And when these activities were challenged, the Lord made no attempt to show that his activities were really within the scope of the sabbath-law (though they were). Instead, he pointed to examples from the Old Testament and from the practice of his contemporaries, where similar liberties were taken.
David and his men ate the shewbread, which only the priests were entitled to do (Matthew 12:4; Mark 2:25-26; Luke 6:3-4; 1 Samuel 21:1-6);
the priests do work on the sabbath day in pursuit of their office, and are not held guilty for it (Matthew 12:5; Numbers 28:9-10);
the Jewish leaders themselves would circumcise a man on the sabbath without guilt (John 7:22);
they would also release their beast if it had fallen into a pit (Matthew 12:11; Luke 14:5), and also see to it that their animals were provided with water (Luke 13:15);
while in connection with his healing of the impotent man he replies to their objections by affirming, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” (John 5:17), as though to claim that his activities on the sabbath were but the continuation of work which God himself was constantly engaged in, on that day as on others.
Indeed, it seems that either the Lord Jesus deliberately chose the sabbath day for a number of his mighty works, or the Gospel-writers purposefully emphasize the works which he did on that day. It might also appear that the Jewish leaders actually set traps for him to provoke him into what they would regard as breaches of the sabbath, and that the Lord had no hesitation in accepting their challenge (Matthew 12:1-12; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-9; 13:10-16; 14:1-5; John 5:8-18; 7:22-23; 9:14-16). And the pronouncements which the Lord made about the sabbath were certainly not calculated to strengthen strict views as to how it should be observed:
the sabbath is made for man, and not man for the sabbath (Mark 2:27);
it is lawful to do good on the sabbath day (Matthew 12:12; Mark 3:4);
the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath (Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5).
Those who seek to establish that the Lord in any way reaffirmed the sabbath-law are, in fact, in such great difficulties that they are reduced to adducing “pray that your flight be not in the winter or on the sabbath day” (Matthew 24:20), apparently heedless of the fact that, if this verse should pronounce that it is unlawful to run away on the sabbath, it would also forbid flight in the winter. It is evidently the inconveniences of fleeing under conditions where one could expect the minimum of help (especially in that bigoted society), rather than the unlawfulness of it, which the Lord is referring to.
The Sabbath in the Teaching of the Apostles
The situation is no better from the sabbatarian standpoint when we come to the Acts and the Epistles. In the former we find that Paul taught in the synagogues on the sabbath (Acts 13:14,42,44; 17:1-2; 18:4), or in Philippi, where apparently there was no synagogue, that he spoke to those women who resorted to the river side on that day; but this proves no more than that Paul preached where he expected to find an audience, which in the case of the Jews and the God-fearers was in the synagogues on Saturdays.
For the rest, there are four pieces of negative evidence which make it perfectly plain that the sabbath-observance was NOT imposed on Gentiles who came to the faith, and make it perfectly possible that even Jewish believers were no longer under an obligation to keep it. These are:
Acts 14:1-29 – Gentile converts did not need to be circumcised, and were not to be subjected to the Law. They must abstain from food offered to idols or strangled, from blood, and from fornication, but no other burden was laid on them than ‘those necessary things’. From this it is certain that those Gentiles who had not already been in the habit of keeping the sabbath would feel no obligation to do so now.
Romans 14:1-12 – Here it is left entirely to personal choice whether one day is regarded above another, and also what kind of food one will eat. The sabbath is not mentioned by name, but once again it is impossible to imagine that its observance could have been omitted had it been truly a Christian duty.
Galatians 4:8-11 – This passage is part of a letter directed to telling the churches of Galatia that they ought not to accept circumcision; but it criticizes, too, the novel practice of ‘observing days, and months, and seasons, and years’. Again the sabbath is not specifically mentioned, but if years represent an annual observance, specifically the Day of Atonement; and seasons the three great feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles; and months refer to new moons; then it is plain enough that days would refer to sabbaths. And the Gentiles are here told, not merely that they need not, but that they ought not to, follow these observances.
Colossians 2:16-17 – No one is allowed to judge the believer ‘in meet, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day, or a new moon, or a sabbath day, which are a shadow of things to come.’ Here it is plain that the feast days are the annual feast, the new moons the monthly offerings, and the sabbaths the weekly observances, a fact confirmed by the use of similar expressions in 2 Chronicles 2:4; 8:13. The sabbath and the other days are called “shadows”, and placed in the same category as Hebrews puts the sacrifices (8:5; 10:1).
As a result of these passages it is absolutely plain that Christians were never exhorted to keep the sabbath, and were, indeed warned against doing so as a matter of duty. We are left, therefore, with the problem of deciding how it comes about that this commandment, alone of the Ten Commandments, apparently has no application to the believer’s life in the 21st century.
One piece of evidence has so far been omitted. God’s rest from creation’s work, given as a reason for observing the sabbath in Exodus 20:11 and 31:17, is also referred to in the New Testament: “For he spake in a certain place of the seventh day on this wise, ‘And God did rest the seventh day from all his works'” (Hebrews 4:4). That is, the verse which forms the foundation of the sabbath law in Exodus is used as the basis for a piece of advice to the Israel of God in the New Testament. Israel had (so runs the argument in Hebrews 3 & 4 based on Psalm 95:7-11) consistently failed to achieve the rest of God. They had failed in the wilderness when they provoked God at Massah; they did not achieve the rest when Joshua led them into the promised land (4:8) because they were unfaithful in the days of the Judges and beyond; they had evidently not attained it when the Psalm was written, else the author would not have need to appeal to them, “Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (4:7); and from their dealings with the Son of God they had disqualified themselves yet once more from the rest of God.
But now the appeal is made to their spiritual successors, in the first instance to the believing Jews of Jerusalem (who were in danger because they were being tempted back into the old ways), and then to all believers of all races at all times: “Today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” It is related now, though, not to the promised land into which the first Joshua (or Jesus, 4:8) led natural Israel, but to the condition of rest into which the second Joshua, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God (4:14) leads his spiritual disciples. There is a remarkable chain of thought:
When God rests he ceases from his work (4:4,10)
When the believer enters the rest of God he ceases to trust in his own works (4:10)
Formerly he laboured helplessly in his sin and found no rest (Matthew 11:28-30)
Now he enters into the sabbath rest of God (4:9).
The sabbath rest is commonly associated with the state of blessedness which will come to all believers when they inherit the kingdom of God at the return of the Lord Jesus to the earth. But this is not the reasoning of this chapter. The believers are being exhorted to profit from the example of the restlessness of disobedient Israel, and by showing true faith cease the vain strivings of those who trust in their own works, and rest in what God has done, and will do, for them through the Lord Jesus, the Son of God. If they draw near through him (4:16), today, they obtain “mercy, and grace to help in time of need.”
So the sabbath proves to be a shadow of the sabbath-life into which the believer enters. In its own way it is as full a part of our obedience to God as any other of the Ten. Like those, too, its application proves to be more complete and more penetrating than the mere letter of the Old Testament law. Just as “no other god” proves to mean, for us, nothing else which claims our devotion, whether the world calls it a god or not, and as “no graven image” includes anything which might claim our attraction to such an extent that the worship of the one true God suffers; so does the sabbath law prove to mean that our lives should be pervaded by the sabbath spirit.
If any disciple esteems every day alike, it is not that all days now become to him equally profane, but that they become equally holy. “He that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it” (Romans 14:6), if it forms part of what Paul really wrote, would then mean that the man who declines to single out a special day for holy uses recognizes before God that the day, and his own life, belongs to that God. “As unto the Lord” becomes the principle on which he acknowledges that his life should be modelled. Even his secular labours come within the same category, and his earthly masters and governments are to be served with a loyalty and a duty laid upon him by God (Ephesians 6:6; Colossians 3:22; Romans 13:1-7).
So the sabbath proves to be no exception. Like the endless sabbath of the future rest, the sabbath of the Christian life should be an uninterrupted doing of God’s pleasure on this, his holy day in our lives. “I will give you rest… Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
— Excerpt from The Ten Commandments – In the Twentieth Century by Alfred Norris.