Sabbath in the New Testament
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The Continuity
Between Judaism and Christianity

Sabbath keeping in the New Testament

Questions about the Sabbath in the Old Testament

Questions About the Sabbath in the New Testament

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Chapter 2


Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

My first reason for believing in the permanence of Sabbathkeeping is the marked continuity between Judaism and Christianity which I perceive in the New Testament. Historically, the abrogation and the substitution views of the Sabbath have been largely based on the assumption that the coming of Christ brought about a radical discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, Law and Grace, Judaism and Christianity. The abandonment of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday is seen as a most obvious evidence of this radical discontinuity. 

Alleged Discontinuity. It is alleged that the earliest converts who accepted Christ as their Messiah and Savior immediately perceived themselves as "the New Israel" with a New Moses and a New Faith. Supposedly, they recognized that the dispensation of the Law had passed and now they were living in the dispensation of Grace. 

To give expression to their new faith, the earliest Christians immediately felt the urgency to adopt, among other things, a new place and a new time of worship. To put it simply, Christianity originated as a result of an immediate and radical break with Judaism which caused drastic liturgical and calendrical innovations. 

A Misconception. This conception of Christian origins is inaccurate and misleading. The New Testament recognizes that Christís coming brought about a certain discontinuity by fulfilling Old Testament promises, but this discontinuity is never interpreted in terms of abrogation of the Mosaic law in general or of Sabbathkeeping in particular. The meaning of the discontinuity must be defined in the light of the sense of continuity that is evident in the New Testament. To illustrate the latter, brief reference will now be made to the sense of continuity present in Luke, Matthew, and Hebrews. 


Believing Jews. Luke emphasizes the continuity between Judaism and Christianity in a variety of ways. A good example is provided in his portrayal of the apostolic church. Again and again he reports the mass conversion of thousands of Jews (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 9:42; 12:24; 13:43; 14:1; 17:12; 21:20). 

To a modern reader "conversion" implies a radical change in lifestyle and/or religion. This, however, was not necessarily the case with the earliest converts. The "many thousands" of Jews who "believed" (Acts 21:20) did not view their acceptance of Jesus of Nazareth as their expected Messiah as representing a breaking away from their Jewish religion and a joining to a new religion: Christianity. They simply viewed themselves as "believing Jews."1 

Jews could be converted by the thousands because their acceptance of Jesus of Nazareth as their expected Messiah meant to them not a reneging of their religion, but the realization of their Messianic expectations. The situation changed dramatically when the Christian mission reached beyond the Jews or Jewish proselytes to "pure" pagans. Then baptisms no longer occurred daily by the thousands, but generally annually at Easter time in much smaller numbers. The reason was that pagans, contrary to the Jews, had to break away radically from their past beliefs and practices. 

Respect for the Law. The sense of continuity is evident in Lukeís respect for the law. He describes the thousands of Jewish converts as "zealous for the law" (Acts 21:20). Paul is described in his speeches as a "Pharisee" (Acts 23:6) who believes everything written in the law and the prophets (Acts 24:14) and who has done nothing "against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple" (Acts 25:8; and 28:17). To prove that he lived "in observance of the law," Paul agreed to undertake a ritual purification at the temple (Acts 21:24-26). 

Repeatedly Luke speaks of "the law of Moses" (Luke 2:22; 24:44; Acts 13:39; 28:23) which he calls "the living oracles" (Acts 7:38). Jacob Jervell notes that "there is no conflict with the law in Jesusí attitude as described in many disputes about the Sabbath. Luke records no less than four disputes and he is concerned to show that Jesus acted in complete accordance with the law, and that the Jewish leaders were not able to raise any objections."2 

Recognition of Discontinuity. This does not mean that Luke ignores the discontinuity brought about by the coming of Christ. He sees in Christ the fulfillment of everything written "in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms" (Luke 24:44; cf. 24:27; 4:21). The fulfillment implies the inauguration of a new age. 

The discontinuity is also present in the saying of Jesus reported in Luke 16:16: "The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached." This verse certainly indicates an element of discontinuity since the age of the law and the prophets has given way to the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Yet, this discontinuity does not involve an abrogation of the law because the very next verse reads: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot of the law to become void" (v. 17). 

The Jerusalem Council. The Jerusalem Council is generally seen as the watershed in the history of the apostolic church when a definite break was made in principle with the law. Max M. B. Turner, for example, draws this conclusion from two major observations. First, he argues that since the decree imposed on the Gentiles included only the four ritual laws which the sojourner in Israel was expected to observe (Lev 17-18), this implies that other aspects of the Old Testament law, such as Sabbathkeeping, were no longer binding upon Gentiles. In support of this conclusion he writes: "The councilís final court of appeal is not Moses and the lawóthey are not so much as mentioned in the letteróbut the Spirit (Acts 15:28)."3 

This conclusion is inaccurate first of all because it ignores the fact that the Gentiles the council had in mind were mostly, if not all, God-fearers who had been instructed in the Jewish faith (Acts 10:2; 11:19-20; 13:43, 44; 14:1). Moreover, the custom of Sabbathkeeping had been accepted by many Gentiles. Philo, in a well-known passage, writes: "There is not a single people to which the custom of Sabbath observance has not spread."4 Tertullian reproaches the pagans for having adopted Jewish customs such as the Sabbath.5 

Another fact often ignored is that the Jews influenced the Romans to adopt the seven-day week instead of their eight-day market week (nundinum). When this adoption took place just before the Christian era, the Romans made Saturday the first and most important day of the week for resting and banqueting.6 In the light of these facts, it was hardly necessary for the council to legislate about Sabbathkeeping for the Gentiles. 

Appeal to Moses. Turnerís claim that that "councilís final court of appeal is not Moses and the law but the Spirit" is discredited by the fact that the council endorses Jamesí proposal because he appeals to Moses for his authority: "For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues" (Acts 15:21).7 

Jervell rightly notes that "No matter how the complicated passage, Acts 15:21, is to be interpreted in detail, the function of the verse is to validate the decree, and to call upon Moses as witness. Everyone who truly hears Moses knows that the decree expresses what Moses demands from Gentiles in order that they may live among the Israelites."8 Furthermore, how can the authority of Moses be negated when the four ritual laws are drawn from Moses himself (Lev 17-18)?9 

Gentiles: Exempt from the Law? Turnerís second argument is derived from Peterís statement in Acts 15:10-11 which reads: "Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." The conclusion that Turner draws from this passage is: "The law is now simply seen as a burden that neither the fathers nor the present generation could bear." Thus, Peter defends "the law-free salvation of the Gentiles."10 

This conclusion ignores the immediate context which deals not with the law in general, but specifically with circumcision (15:1, 5, 9). Secondly, it is unthinkable that Peter viewed the whole Mosaic law as an unbearable burden when so much of it contains provisions for atonement and restoration and when it is earlier described as the "living oracles given to us" (Acts 7:38). Moreover, the council does not exempt the Gentiles from the observance of the whole law, but only from the law of circumcision. The four ritual laws are part of the Mosaic law (Lev 17-18). 

Gentilesí Adherence to the Law. A careful look at the decree of the council hardly suggests a "law-free salvation" for the Gentiles. As Jacob Jervell perceptively notes: "The apostolic decree enjoins Gentiles to keep the law, and they keep that part of the law required for them to live together with Jews. It is not lawful to impose upon Gentiles more than Moses himself demanded. It is false to speak of the Gentiles as free from the law. The church, on the contrary, delivers the law to the Gentiles as Gentiles. Thus Luke succeeds in showing complete adherence to the law as well as the salvation of Gentiles as Gentiles."11 

The above observations discredit Turnerís claim that "the Jerusalem council made a break in principle with the law."12 On the contrary, "the brethren" felt inspired by the Holy Spirit to apply to Gentiles the Mosaic law regarding the "sojourner" who dwelt among Israelites. The application was undoubtedly broader than the Jewish provision for "sojourners, aliens" which regarded them as second-class citizens. 

The Jerusalem council granted to the Gentiles full inclusion in the people of God (Acts 15:14). This decision, however, was in harmony with Isaiahís view of the "foreigner" who keeps the sabbath and does not profane it and holds fast my covenant." These persons, the prophet says, God would accept as His people "for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples" (Is 56:6-7). 

The View of the Church. The sense of continuity is also evident in Lukeís view of the church not as a new Israel arising out of the rejection of the old, but as the "old Israel" being restored according to Godís promise. This view is especially expressed in Jamesí speech at the Jerusalem Council where he cites Amos 9:11 to prove that the conversion of the Gentiles is part of the fulfillment of the prophecy regarding the restoration of Israel (Acts 15:16-18). 

Amosí prophecy about the Gentiles who would flock to restored Israel is seen as being fulfilled in the mass conversion of the Jews through whom salvation is being extended to the Gentiles. "Thus," as Jervell writes, "the continuity of salvation history has been also insured; Luke is unaware of a break in salvation history."13 

The Places and Times of Christian Gatherings. Another indication of continuity can be seen in Lukeís frequent references to the temple, the synagogue, prayer, and preaching which suggest that Christian worship was viewed as a continuation and re-interpretation of the Jewish religious services. The synagogue is the place of worship most frequently mentioned. Paul met in the synagogue regularly with "Jews and Greeks" and even Apollo met with the believers at Ephesus in the synagogue (Acts 18:24-26).14 

After the martyrdom of Stephen, Paul went searching for Christians in the synagogues at Damascus (Acts 9:2; 22:19), presumably because they still met there. Later in his own ministry, the Apostle, "as was his custom" (Acts 17:2), met regularly on the Sabbath in the synagogues, in the open air, and in homes, both with the Jews and the Gentiles (Acts 13:14; 17:2; 18:4; 13:44; 16:13). This was possible because no radical separation had yet occurred from Jewish places and times of gatherings. 


The continuity between Judaism and Christianity we have found in Luke is equally present in Matthew. The following few examples will suffice to exemplify Matthewís emphasis on continuity. 

Christís Life and Teaching. The major events of Christís life, such as the conception, the birth, the massacre of innocent children, the announcement of Christís ministry by John the Baptist, the baptism, etc., are all presented by Matthew as the direct fulfillment of Messianic prophecies. 

Not only the life, but also the teachings of Christ are presented as the continuation and confirmation of the Old Testament. The "golden rule" in Matthew 7:12 is presented as being in essence "the law and the prophets." In Matthew 22:40 the two great commandments are viewed as the basis upon which "depend all the law and the prophets." In Matthew 19:16-19, Jesus tells the rich young man who wanted to know what he should do to have eternal life, "keep the commandments." Then He proceeds to list five of them. 

Fulfillment of the Law. Perhaps Matthewís most emphatic affirmation of continuity is found in the passage where Jesus affirms to have come not "to abolish" but "to fulfill" the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17-20). In the light of the antithesis of verses 21-48, "to fulfill" appears to mean "to clarify," "to explain" the meaning of the law and the prophets. Repeatedly in Matthew, Jesus acts as the supreme interpreter of the law who attacks external obedience and some of the Halakic traditions (Matt 15:3-6; 9:13; 12:7; 23:1-39). 

"To fulfill" could also refer to the prophetic realization of the law and prophets in the life and ministry of Christ. This would imply an element of discontinuity which has led some to conclude that the law and the prophets came to an end in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This interpretation goes too far because verse 18 explicitly affirms that the law would be valid "till heaven and earth pass away." This expression clearly goes beyond the earthly ministry of Christ. 

In the light of the foregoing considerations, we conclude that Matthew sees in Christ not the termination of the law and the prophets, but their realization and continuation. We might say that in Matthew the law and the prophets live on in Christ who clarifies and, in some cases, intensifies their teachings (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28). 


The book of Hebrews provides valuable insights into the manner in which the tension between continuity and discontinuity was being resolved in the New Testament times. The book suggests that the sense of continuity with the Old Testament was so profound that some Christians (Hellenistic Jews according to F. F. Bruce)15 actually returned to the practice of their "ancestral Jewish faith" and "Jewish Liturgy."16 

To counteract the influence of Jewish sacrificial cultus, the author shows the superiority of Christ over the angels, Moses and the priesthood. The last of the three is discussed at great length in chapters 7 to 10, apparently because the Jewish sacrificial cultus still exercised a great attraction upon these Christians. 

Discontinuity in Hebrews. The author of Hebrews emphasizes the discontinuity brought about by the coming of Christ, when he says that "if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood" (7:11), there would have been no need for Christ to come. But because the priests, the sanctuary, and its services were "symbolic" (9:9; 8:5), they would not in themselves "perfect the conscience of the worshipper" (9:9). Consequently, it was necessary for Christ to come "once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (9:26). The effect of Christís coming is described as "setting aside" (7:18), making "obsolete" (8:13), "abolishing" (10:9) all the Levitical services associated with the sanctuary. 

Some have interpreted these affirmations as indicating a radical abrogation of the Old Testament law in general and of the Sabbath in particular.17 Such an interpretation ignores that the statements in question are found in chapters 7 to 10, which deal with the Levitical, sacrificial regulations. Though the author uses in these chapters the term "law" (10:1) and "covenant" (8:7, 8, 13), he mentions them with reference to the Levitical priesthood and services. It is in this context, that is, as they relate to the Levitical ministry, that they are declared "abolished" (10:9). But this declaration can hardly be taken as a blanket statement for the abrogation of the law in general. 

Continuity in Hebrews. Note should be taken of the fact that Hebrews teaches not only discontinuity but also continuity. The latter is expressed in a variety of ways. There is continuity in the revelation which the same God "spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets" and now "in these last days has spoken to us by a Son" (1:1-2). There is continuity in the faithfulness and accomplishments of Moses and Christ (3:2-6). 

There is continuity in the redemptive ministry offered typologically in the earthly sanctuary by priests and realistically in the heavenly sanctuary by Christ Himself (chs. 7, 8, 9, 10). There is continuity in faith and hope, as New Testament believers share in the faith and promises of the Old Testament worthies (chs. 11-12). 

More specifically, there is continuity in the "sabbatismos"óa term used in a technical way by Plutarch, Justin, Epiphanius, Apostolic Constitutions to designate Sabbath observanceówhich "remains" (apoleipetia), literally "is left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9).18 It is noteworthy that while the author declares the Levitical priesthood and services as "abolished" (Heb 10:9), "obsolete" and "ready to vanish away" (Heb 8:13), he explicitly teaches that a "Sabbathkeeping is left behind for the people of God" (Heb 4:9). 

Further consideration will be given to the significance of Hebrews 4:9 in chapter 4. For the present, it suffices to note that Hebrews endeavors to clarify both the continuity and discontinuity brought about by the coming of Christ. The Levitical priesthood, the temple, and its services are proclaimed to be terminated by the coming of Christ, but other aspects of the law, such as "the Sabbath rest," are declared to be "left behind for the people of God" (4:9). 


The above discussion of the continuity and discontinuity of the law in the New Testament is incomplete since we have considered only a few representative writers. The writings of Paul, where the tension between continuity and discontinuity is especially present, will be considered separately in chapters 6 and 7 in conjunction with the Apostleís attitude toward the law in general and the Sabbath in particular. Yet, the representative writings we have examined do reveal the presence in the New Testament of a strong perception of continuity with the Old Testament religious heritage. 

We have seen that the earliest converts were predominantly Jews and God-fearers who were very zealous in the observance of the law (Acts 21:20). They saw in Christ the Fulfiller of the law in the sense of the One who clarified its meaning and realized its promises. Gradually they perceived that certain aspects of the law, such as those relating to the Levitical ministry, had become obsolete by the coming of Christ. We have found no indication, however, that this perception led Christians to doubt or to negate the value and validity of such moral aspects of the law as the principle of Sabbathkeeping. Additional support for this conclusion will be submitted in the following chapters. 


1. For an extensive and perceptive analysis of how Luke emphasizes the Christian continuity with Judaism, see Jacob Jervell, Luke and the People of God (Minneapolis, 1972), pp. 41-74, 133-152. 

2. Jacob Jervell (n. 1), p. 140. 

3. M. Max B. Turner, "The Sabbath, Sunday, and the Law in Luke/Acts" in From Sabbath to Lordís Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation, ed. Donald A. Carson (Grand Rapids, 1982), p. 117. 

4. Philo, Against Apion 2, 39 

5. Tertullian, Ad Nationes 1, 13. My analysis of this text is found in From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome, 1977), p. 249. 

6. On the origin of the Planetary Week, see my investigation in From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome, 1977), pp. 241-247. 

7. M. Max B. Turner (n. 3), p. 117. 

8. Jacob Jervell (n. 1), p. 144. 

9. For an analysis of the Mosaic basis of the four ritual laws, see H. Waitz, "Das problem des sogenannten Aposteldekrets," Zeitschreift für Kirchengeschichte 55 (1936): 277-279. 

10. M. Max B. Turner (n. 3), p. 119. 

11. Jacob Jervell (n. 1), p. 144. 

12. M. Max B. Turner (n. 3), p. 118. 

13. Jacob Jervell (n. 1), p. 53. 

14. My discussion of Lukeís references to the places and times of Christian gatherings is found in From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome, 1977), pp. 135-142. 

15. F. F. Bruce, "Hebrews" Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, 1978), vol. 3, p. 87. 

16. For a brief discussion, see Bruce M. Metzger, The New Testament, Its Background, Growth, and Content (Nashville, 1965), p. 249. 

17. See, for example, A. T. Lincoln, "From Sabbath to Lordís Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective," in From Sabbath to Lordís Day (n. 3), p. 376. 

18. Plutarch, De Superstitione 3 (Moralia 166A); Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 23, 3; Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses 30, 2, 2; Apostolic Constitutions 2, 36, 7. A. T. Lincoln admits that "in each of these places the term denotes the observance or celebration of the Sabbath. This usage corresponds to the Septuagint usage of the cognate verb sabbatizo (cf. Ex 16:30; Lev 23:32; 26:34f.; 2 Chron 36:21), which also has reference to Sabbath observance. Thus the writer to the Hebrews is saying that since the time of Joshua, an observance of Sabbath rest has been outstanding" ("Sabbath Rest and Eschatology in the New Testament" in From Sabbath to Lordís Day [n. 3], p. 213).

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