Part of a series on the Ten Commandments.

By Abigail Woolley Cutter

Of the ten, the command to observe Sabbath has undoubtedly been the most difficult for Christians to interpret — and therefore perhaps the easiest for us to pass over today with a shrug. Because keeping a strict day of rest has been a marker of Jewish particularity since ancient times, Christian accounts of Sabbath have had to ask just how Jewish the commandment is — and how Jewish we are (or, better put, whether we are part of Israel in any meaningful way). Answers to these questions have been too wide-ranging to survey here, and they result in a vast array of ways Christians have attempted to obey the commandment. We can categorize these broadly as literal Sabbaths (sabbatarianism) and spiritualized Sabbaths — of which each is appealing, but neither is satisfactory.

I do not despair of the fourth commandment, however. What chiefly gives me hope that Christians could be on the brink of a new discovery of the Sabbath is that, beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, we have seen much-needed gains in the theology of Jewish-Christian relations. If Christians can see Jesus as the one to whom the Hebrew Scriptures pointed without concluding that Judaism is obsolete, then maybe Jesus can fulfill Sabbath, too, without rendering it obsolete. Then we can once again be formed by the fourth commandment.


But first, what did the Sabbath mean to Israel? Simply put, keeping Sabbath meant ceasing work on the seventh day of each week — but layer upon layer of theological meaning was wrapped up in this. It taught Israel that God was the Creator, and that his people were mere creatures. God was ultimately their provider, and they undertook feverish activity for profit and self-preservation in vain. It also reminded Israel that God had rescued them out of slavery, and that they must in turn be merciful to their economic dependents. Next, God’s work of creation — along with all creatures’ striving — would one day see completion. And unique among all God’s creatures, it was the people of Israel who had been chosen to bear witness to these aspects of God’s character through keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath set them apart — but gradually, prophetic texts gave glimpses of a future time when the Sabbath, exclusive though it was, would become a doorway for excluded people into the people of God.

Since Christianity became a mainly Gentile religion, however, the dominant Christian treatment of Sabbath has been to spiritualize it. While the Jews had needed to keep the law of Moses in a physical way (“unspiritual” as Christians often thought them), Christians could advance straight to the spiritual meaning. St. Augustine, who made Sabbath a cornerstone of his theology, said that Sabbath-keeping meant resting in Christ and ceasing from sin. Luther and Calvin both followed suit, teaching that no one day of the week deserved Christians’ special reverence (except for the convenience of corporate worship and deference to the authorities who had selected Sunday for the purpose). For Luther, like Augustine, keeping Sabbath meant ceasing from sin. But it had an additional meaning: Christians must refrain from trying to please God by their own efforts. Calvin thought much the same, using the term “mortification” for the spiritual disposition of relying on grace alone. While Calvin gave Mosaic law more credit than Luther did — he saw this spiritual lesson in Sabbath from its start — he too believed that Christians did not need to observe a literal Sabbath in order to benefit from its spiritual meaning.

Other, though fewer, Christians have believed that the fourth commandment should be kept by literal observance — but even this has generally been a far cry from the Mosaic law. In the wake of the Reformation, some literal interpreters of Scripture went so far as to take up seventh-day Sabbath observance. But by and large, though the process had taken over a thousand years, by the time of the rise of Protestant sabbatarians, “Sabbath” observance had been transferred to Sunday. Many of these sabbatarians were latter-day followers of Luther or Calvin who had taken the reformers’ recommendations to honor the spirit of the Sabbath by worshipping on Sunday, and made it a fixed thing.

The day chosen for observance was not the only way Christian sabbatarianism has diverged from the Mosaic Sabbath: the nature of observance could be quite different, too. Think of Chariots of Fire, in which the Scottish Presbyterian missionary and Olympic athlete Eric Liddell refuses to run his qualifying heat at the Paris Olympics because it is scheduled for a Sunday. Previously in the movie, he had told a young boy, “the Sabbath’s not a day for playing football.” Liddell’s Puritan-influenced sabbatarianism, which once dominated England, Scotland, and the United States, was not about rest per se, but rest for worship. Time not working should be spent in all-day worship, Christian learning, or works of charity — and not in relaxation or recreation, which would profane the day. At times, anything considered less holy (such as alcohol or theater) could be forbidden on Sunday, even if it was allowed on other days.

As I see it, neither the spiritualized Sabbath nor strict sabbatarianism is clearly the right choice for Christians, although each has its appeal. The spiritual Sabbath has support in the New Testament (think of the book of Hebrews, especially); but if the Sabbath is only spiritual, it loses much of the clout it had for Israel — any power to discipline our economic behavior, mark out a people as God’s, or to withstand pressures to compromise that allegiance. Furthermore, does it not bespeak an overly realized eschatology to suggest — like Luther and, to some extent, Calvin — that we have already reached the point in salvation history at which God’s people can achieve the right spiritual disposition without practice? The Sabbath is nothing if not practice at curbing our over-zealous efforts and relying on God.

But while a literal Sabbath might have these advantages, the New Testament does not allow us to see it as a sine qua non of Christian belonging. Jesus interprets the Sabbath as having a place within his own messianic mission, rather than sovereignty in its own right (e.g., Mark 2:23-38 and parallels). Paul tells his congregation in Rome not to allow themselves to be judged as Christians for the way they treat the Jewish holy days (Rom. 14:5). The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 lays out very minimal requirements for Gentile believers, and Sabbath-keeping is not listed among them.

What then? If neither approach is good enough, are we finally doomed to shrug our shoulders and hope that it doesn’t matter so much after all that the Sabbath is part of the Decalogue?

I think not. Because Christian interpretations of Sabbath have been tied to the state of Jewish-Christian relations, I think we can find help for this commandment in the wave of renewed Christian attention to Judaism that began in the second half of the twentieth century. Theologians, biblical scholars, and church leaders have widely called into question old grounds for Christian supersessionism — and yet, for those concerned to preserve Christian orthodoxy, it is of paramount importance that we continue to affirm that Jesus is the one who makes possible righteousness before God.

The Dominican theologian Jean-Miguel Garrigues has laid out what I think is the most compelling way to balance these two concerns. He maintains Christian orthodoxy but avoids supersessionism (by most measures). Jesus is the one through whom both Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to God, he says, but we need not meet Jesus in the same way. Jews may not recognize Jesus now, but they have already participated in his sufferings through their own. And while Gentiles come to God through Jesus, it is Jesus as the gateway into Israel. Thus Gentiles are soteriologically dependent on Israel. In this ministry of Jesus to both groups, God reveals his faithfulness through Israel, and his mercy through Gentiles.

A principle we can take from Garrigues is that fulfillment does not mean obsolescence. Indeed, as Jesus, Paul, the author of Hebrews, and St. Augustine insist, Christians should see Jesus as the fulfillment of Sabbath. But rather than taking this to mean that we do not need to attend to the Sabbath, we can do the opposite: learn more about Christ by learning about the Sabbath he is supposed to have fulfilled. The more we are formed by the Sabbath, the more we will be formed by Christ.

Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Pharisees to whom Jesus said this had forgotten that the Sabbath had humanitarian ends. But contemporary people — who have forgotten the Sabbath almost entirely — need to hear Jesus’s statement with a slightly different accent: “For the good of people, Sabbath was created.”

Paul said, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial” (1 Cor. 6:12). Paul’s hearers were quick to assume that God’s grace had freed them from Jewish constraints. Paul reminded them that while eating the sacrificed meat does not separate them from God, what they eat and drink actually matters — not least, to their community. To us — who also tend to think that our behavior doesn’t matter if our heart is right — Paul might put the same principle this way, “Some things are not required, but they might be beneficial anyway.”

Jesus reminded his fellow Jews that obedience to Torah matters not least because of how it reflects the heart. To those of us who like to skip obedience and cross our fingers hoping our hearts are right, he might say, “To form the heart, practices are given.”

In this spirit, I say that, in order to understand Jesus more, we should immerse ourselves in the Sabbath he fulfills — that is, the Sabbath to which he gives meaning. I am not for reverting to Saturday — too much baggage between Jews and Christians for that. And besides, we are people of the Resurrection, after all. But I am for ceasing work with much more commitment than we typically do — and not just to engage in corporate worship and a frenzy of holy overachieving. Let us take an entire day to say “no” to the pressure to achieve, earn, and buy, and “yes” to the presence of God, “yes” to eternity. I am not for saying that Christians have taken over the original, Jewish meaning of Sabbath — but I am for finding doors to solidarity with Jews. Maybe Christians can learn from how Jews have interpreted Sabbath in hypermodernity. (Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s 1951 classic The Sabbath is my current focus of study.) And together — is it too much to hope? — Jews and Christians could work toward economic limits, toward reclaiming regular time off for workers, toward a weekend in which we all practice ceasing.

Abigail Woolley Cutter is a Ph.D. candidate in Christian Ethics at Southern Methodist University.

About The Author

Dr. Abigail Woolley Cutter lives in Winfield, KS, where she holds the position of visiting scholar in Religion at Southwestern College. She works in Christian ethics.

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Charlie Clauss
2 years ago

I see parallels between the weekly call to sabbath rest and the daily call to nightly sleep. Both are a reminder of our limitations and need to rest. If the “day” does start at sundown, it is profound that we sleep while God is active.

Then there is the office of compline – a night by night reminder of these things:

Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake
we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.

2 years ago

I do not know the work of Garrigues, but it has been a traditional position (Justin, Irenaeus, et al) that Israel enjoyed Christ through figures and because the God of Israel is the One God of Christian worship. God’s mediation is only and always through Christ, through whom all things were made. The Articles also make this clear. I deal with this emphasis in a recent book.

Thank you for a thoughtful response to the 4th commandment which, as you note, presents a particular challenge given the parting of the ways.

Marcus Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  C R SEITZ

So the “parting of the ways” trumps God’s Word at Creation, when the Sabbath was established BY GOD, before Abraham, Israel (Jacob) or Moses. The fourth command was only … Oh, that’s right, “Remember the Sabbath …” Nothing to do suddenly with Israel. “The reason is that in six days the Lord made everything—the sky, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. On the seventh day he rested. So the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” ‭‭[Exodus‬ ‭20:11‬ ‭NCV] God is the Creator of the Sabbath; not humans. Better we respect HIM, and thus honor what… Read more »

Debbie Bigelow
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Conrad

Amen. I like that!!

Alex China
1 year ago

It is either you obey the Word of God or you disobey it which is a sin according scripture

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