Jesus Christ: The Sabbath Rest of the New Covenant


        Among Christians, there is disagreement over the validity and application of the Sabbath command of the Ten Commandments, for which there are three basic positions.  Dale Ratzlaff, former Seventh-day Adventist pastor and author of Sabbath in Christ, identifies the first group as adhering to the “Transfer/Modification motif” (14).  He applies this term because these Christians believe the observance of the fourth commandment was transferred from Saturday to Sunday in the New Testament, but they modify the Old Testament requirements for keeping the day holy.  The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity acknowledges that the majority of Christians “believe that Lord’s day observances fulfill or replace the Sabbath day observances” (Swartley 807).  Ratzlaff labels the second group as the “Reformation/Continuation” camp (14).  Seventh-day Adventists are the largest denomination to defend this position, holding that the observance of Saturday should be restored to Christianity.  In their official statement of beliefs, the denomination writes that God “rested on the seventh day and instituted the Sabbath” at creation and, furthermore, the “Sabbath is God’s perpetual sign of His eternal covenant between Him and His people” (Ministerial Association 248).  The third position Ratzlaff describes is the “Fulfillment/Transformation” model, which contends that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath command of the Old Testament (15).  Those who espouse this view believe that the Decalogue command to rest on Saturday “has been transformed into the rest of grace offered in the new covenant gospel of Christ” (Ratzlaff 15).  This paper will show that the fourth commandment is no longer binding upon Christians under the New Covenant because the seventh-day Sabbath was a foreshadowing of the “rest of grace” believers experience through faith in Christ.

        Before looking to New Testament passages that will make clear the abolition of the old covenant law, it must first be established that the Ten Commandments are in fact part of the old covenant spoken of in the New Testament.  Deuteronomy 4:13 says, “He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets” (New International Version).  In addition, God said, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel,” so Moses “wrote on the tablets the words of the covenantthe Ten Commandments” (Ex. 34.27-28, see also Deut. 5.2, 8.9, 11, 15).  In Deuteronomy ten, God commands Moses to put the second set of stone tablets into a special chest called “the ark of the covenant” to reinforce that the Ten Commandments equal the covenant (vs 8).  Therefore, scripture gives abundant proof that that the Ten Commandments and the old covenant are inseparable.

        Many New Testament verses make it evident that the old covenant has been replaced with a “better covenant” (Heb. 7.22).  Second Corinthians 3:6-7 says that we have been made “ministers of a new covenantnot of the letter but of the Spirit,” for the old covenant was a “ministry that brought death, which was engraved on letters of stone” and was “fading.”  In the Greek, the verb “fading away” (2 Cor. 3.11, 13) comes from katargeo, which means to “abolish, eliminate” (Danker 193).  Hebrews also repeatedly makes explicit that the old covenant is done away with. “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law” (Heb. 7.12).  Again we understand that “[b]y calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one [the old covenant] obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (Heb. 8.13).  Furthermore, the author of Hebrews states that “[t]he law is only a shadow of the good things that are comingnot the realities themselves” (Heb. 10.1, emphasis mine).  Yet again, Scripture testifies to this fact:  “Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’  He sets aside the first to establish the second” (Heb. 10.9, emphasis mine).  In the Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Larry Richards explains that, “unlike the other biblical covenants, that of the [Mosaic] law was never intended to be permanent” (196).  Clearly, the Ten Commandments are inseparable from the old covenant, which has been declared “obsolete.”  The law has been replaced by the “surpassing glory” of the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3.10).

        Colossians 2:16-17 provides an excellent explanation of the role of law and the true meaning of the Sabbath for the Christian.  The apostle Paul exhorts the Colossians not to allow others to “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” (emphases mine).  Just prior to this statement, Paul declares that God has “canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2.14).  This is Paul’s basis for telling his readers not to give in to those condemning them for not observing the weekly Sabbath and other Jewish holy days.  The official position of the Adventist Church, however, states that “the sabbaths here referred to are the ceremonial sabbaths of the Jewish annual festivals,” not the Sabbath of the Decalogue (Ministerial Association 254).  Ratzlaff argues against this interpretation by noting that “when these ritual laws of the old covenant [are] mentioned together [in the Old Testament], never are the seasonal feasts called ‘sabbaths,’ leaving the word ‘Sabbath’ for the seventh-day Sabbath to avoid confusion” (192).  Greg Taylor, formerly a Seventh-day Adventist pastor and author of Discovering the New Covenant, points out that the “same construction [yearly, monthly, weekly] is found in ascending or descending order repeatedly throughout the Old Testament” and in those instances (see 1 Ch. 23.30-31, 2 Ch. 2.4, Ne. 10.32-33, Hos. 2.11-12, Eze. 45.17) “’sabbaths’ […] always refer to the weekly Sabbath” (68-69).

        Ironically, Seventh-day Adventism’s leading Sabbath expert, Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, disagrees with the official position of the denomination; like Ratzlaff and Taylor, he holds that the "Sabbath day" of Colossians 2:16 refers to the weekly sabbaths.  However, in the end, the internal dispute makes little difference to Adventist doctrine because Bacchiocchi concludes that Paul is only warning against distortions of weekly Sabbath observance. Bacchiocchi writes that “the relative pronoun ‘these’ [at the beginning of verse 16] refers not to the five mentioned practices as such [eating, drinking, and keeping the festivals, New Moons and Sabbath days], but rather to the ‘regulations’ regarding such practices promoted by the false teachers” (247).  However, Taylor points out the incredulous nature of Bacchiocchi’s explanation:  “These religious holidays, including the Sabbath, were symbols pointing forward to Jesus.  They were typological prefigurations of Jesus.  How could the perversion of a symbol be a shadow or prefiguration of Christ?” (70-71).  Adding further weight to Taylor’s argument is Leviticus 23, wherein Moses lays out all the “appointed feasts” and “sacred assemblies” (vs 2) the children of Israel were to observe.  The weekly Sabbath heads the list, followed by the Passover, Firstfruits, Feast of Weeks, Day of Atonement, and others.  So, it is clear by its inclusion with these festivals that the Sabbath of the fourth commandment was as much a foreshadowing of Christ as were the other holy days prescribed in Leviticus 23.

        A further indication that the fourth commandment is not a binding moral institution lies in the fact that Sabbath-breaking is never mentioned as a sin in the New Testament, nor is it listed as a moral responsibility.  There are many moral prohibitions found in the New Testament (see Gal. 5.19-21, Eph. 5.3-4, Col. 3.5-9, and Rev. 21.8) as well as lists of positive attributes and actions to which believers should aspire (see Rom. 12.9-18, Gal. 5.22-23, and Eph. 5.1-2), but Sabbath breaking/keeping is found in neither category.  In his book Sabbath, Circumcision and Tithing, Michael Morrison, a leader in the formerly Sabbath-keeping Worldwide Church of God denomination and a doctoral candidate at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes that “the New Testament does not say that any other day [than the seventh-day Sabbath of the Old Testament] ought to be a day of rest.  There is no command to keep the first day, either as a day of meeting or a day of rest.  It is neither commanded nor forbidden” (261).  Thus, it is clear that observing either Saturday or Sunday as a Sabbath is not required under the New Covenant.

        At the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15, the leaders of the church, led by the Holy Spirit, decide that the Gentile converts to Christianity do not have to undergo circumcision.  There is no need for the Gentiles to first become Jews and observe the Jewish law.  Ratzlaff shows the true significance of this radical pronouncement as he explains the Old Testament implications of circumcision:

To become a member of the covenant community the males of every household had to be circumcised (Gen. 17.9-14; Lev. 12.3) and all had to observe the Sabbath (Ex. 31.13-17; Isa. 56.1-8).  A foreigner was forbidden to partake in the covenant celebrations unless he was circumcised (Ex. 12.48).  If you take away circumcision, then you take away the covenant people.  If you take away covenant people, then you must take away the Sabbath of Sinai, for it is the sign between God and the covenant people.  Therefore, the Sabbath and circumcision were closely linked as signs of the covenant. (81)

Because circumcision was the entrance sign into the covenant community of Judaism, when it was done away with, so was the Sabbath.  Looking at Acts 15:5, it is apparent that the Jews understood the connection between circumcision and observing the law, for Luke records that “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.’”  Therefore, Ratzlaff is correct in teaching that circumcision preceded the obligation to keep the Mosaic law.  Charles C. Ryrie, formerly Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, explains that “unless the New Testament expressly says so, part of the law cannot be ended without doing away with all of it” (242).  The Jerusalem council’s decision to declare circumcision obsolete did away with the entire old covenant—the seventh-day Sabbath included.

        In Galatians, one finds that the law was only in effect from the time of Moses until Christ. Paul writes that the law “was added [. . .] until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (Gal. 3.19, emphases mine).  It was “introduced 430 years” after Abraham received the promise through faith (Gal. 3.17).  In the chapter that follows, the point regarding Sabbath is made even clearer as the apostle incredulously asks the Galatians why they “are turning back to those weak and miserable principles?  Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?  You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!  I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you” (Gal. 4.9-11).  Bacchiocchi argues that Paul is chastising the Galatians for “their return to observing pagan superstitious days” rather than for keeping the Jewish Sabbath (254).  Morrison, however, provides an insightful explanation to counter Bacchiocchi’s assertion:

[T]he Galatians were coming out of one religion [paganism] and into another [Judaism].  Paul used words that applied to both religions to point out the similarities involved.  Pagan religions had their special days, months, seasons and years; so did the old covenant.  They have a different set of days, but it is a similar idea.  The Galatians had come out of religious bondage, and were going back into a religious servitude. (48)

Considering the passages that have already been explored, Morrison’s explanation is in line with the theme of scripture and is therefore far more convincing than Bacchiocchi’s.  The ceremonial aspects, the types and shadows, of the old covenant were mandatory only “until the Seed [Christ…] had come” (Gal. 3.19).  Paul again witnesses to this truth when he writes that “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Rom. 10.4).

        The negation of the law, however, does not mean that Christians have no moral obligations.  On the contrary, Ryrie notes that “[i]n the law of Christ are the hundreds of commandments of the New Testament epistles, and together these form a new and distinct code of ethics” (246).  Jesus raises the bar substantially when he tells his listeners that it is not only a sin to murder but also to be angry with another person (Mt. 5.21-22).  James Hilton, M.Div. student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, recognizes that “every other one of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament, with the exception of the Sabbath” (74).  Taylor illustrates this even further when he shows that the moral principles behind the other nine commands of the Decalogue are reiterated anywhere from four to fifty-plus times each in the New Testament (126-27).  Hilton also observes that “there is a clear absence of any command to observe the Sabbath in the New Testament” (74).  There are no exhortations telling believers to abstain from work or to rest or worship on any particular day of the week.  This does not excuse Christians from fellowship, however, because believers are told they should “not give up meeting together” for mutual encouragement (Heb. 10.25).  Although believers are not under the law, lawlessness and blatant, unrepentant sin must not be part of any true Christian’s life.

        The book of Hebrews reveals the New Covenant Sabbath rest for believers.  Hebrews 4:9 says that "[t]here remains, then, a Sabbath-rest [sabbatismos] for the people of God.”  Interestingly, the word sabbatismos is found only once in the New Testament, and it is likely because the author of Hebrews was attaching to the Sabbath a new and expanded meaning beyond that of sabbaton, which is otherwise used to denote the Sabbath day (Ratzlaff 284).  Although for centuries the Jews had found their physical rest in a day, the New Covenant takes the focus off the shadows of the Old Testament signs and rituals and reveals their spiritual substancethe fulfillment/realityin the person of Jesus Christ.  Christians find complete Sabbath-like rest in Christ's finished work on the cross.  Believers are to “make every effort to enter that rest,” which should be experienced "Today" every day for the Christian (Heb. 4.11 and Heb. 4.7).  According to Andrew T. Lincoln, formerly a professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, the author of Hebrews teaches that “the New Covenant people of God discharge their duty of Sabbath observance […] by exercising faith”; thus, believers “cease from their own works so that God may work in them” (213).  The New Testament Sabbath rest is entered into daily by ceasing from one’s "works" of trying to earn salvation though keeping the old covenant law.  For Christians, the Sabbath is a Person; His name is Jesus Christ, our Sabbatismos.

        In conclusion, the “Fulfillment/Transformation” motif of the Sabbath has the strongest biblical support of the three positions outlined by Ratzlaff (15).  The Old Testament books of Exodus and Deuteronomy provide undeniable proof that the Decalogue and old covenant are indivisible, as the Ten Commandments are the very “words of the covenant” (Ex. 34.28).  Then the New Testament, in no uncertain terms, declares that the old covenant is “fading away” and “obsolete,” having been replaced with the New Covenant (2 Cor. 3.11 and Heb. 8.13).  In addition, Paul explains that the Jewish holy days, including the weekly Sabbath, were merely a “shadow” which pointed to Christ; therefore, Christians should not feel obligated to observe them once the “reality” has come (Col. 2.17).  Furthermore, because Jesus and the New Testament writers never reiterate the Sabbath command as they do the moral principles contained in the old covenant, Christians do not need to observe a literal Sabbath.  In Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council proclaims an official, apostle-endorsed end to the law for believers when they decide that circumcision is no longer necessary.  After false teachers convince the Galatians that it is necessary to observe old covenant law, Paul explains that the law was only in effect “until” Christ (Gal. 3.19).  However, the absence of law does not mean that Christians may live like the ungodly, for the New Testament provides abundant instruction in orthopraxy.  Finally, Hebrews 3-4 reveals that God desires His people to experience the rest of grace, His sabbatismos, continually.  Jesus entreats all to respond to Him:  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11.28-29).  Like the Jewish audience to whom Matthew recounts Jesus’ invitation, many modern Christians would find true spiritual rest by entering into the reality of the “Sabbath in Christ” rather than clinging to the weekly Sabbath of an obsolete and fulfilled old covenant shadow.


~ by Jennifer Rector, April 2010  (This paper was written for a New Testament Survey class).  We invite you to read a related paper, "New Covenant Implications of the Transfiguration."




Works Cited

Bacchiocchi, Samuele. The Sabbath Under Crossfire: A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments. Berrien Springs, MI: Biblical Perspectives, 2002.

Danker, Frederick W. The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Hilton, James. “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: Examining the Ethics of Sunday.” Faith and Mission 17:3 (2000): 66-76.

Holy Bible. New International Version. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996.

Lincoln, Andrew T. “Sabbath, Rest, and Eschatology in the New Testament.” From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation. D. A. Carson, ed. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999.

Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Seventh-day Adventists Believe…. Hagerstown, MD: Review & Herald Publishing, 1988.

Morrison, Michael. Sabbath, Circumcision, and Tithing: Which Old Testament Laws Apply to Christians? San Jose, CA: Writers Club Press, 2002.

Ratzlaff, Dale. Sabbath in Christ.  Glendale, AZ:  Life Assurance Ministries, 2003. (Note: Page numbers cited in this paper are from the 2003 edition, which is no longer in print).

Richards, Larry. “Covenant.” Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Lyman Rand Tucker, Jr. and Gerard H. Terpstra, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985.

Ryrie, Charles C. “The End of the Law.” Bibliotheca Sacra 124:495 (1967): 240-247.

Swartley, Willard M. “Sabbath.” Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Everett Ferguson, ed. New York, NY: Garland, 1990. 

Taylor, Greg. Discovering the New Covenant: Why I Am No Longer a Seventh-day Adventist. Glendale, AZ: Life Assurance Ministries, 2004.


If you made it through this paper, I thank you for taking the time to read it! 

Blessings in Christ, Jennifer Rector, April 16, 2010