Pre-Law (a natural Sabbath)
The Mosaic Law (a spiritual Sabbath)
The New Covenant and the Sabbath
The problem with approaching a subject like the Sabbath is that it’s suffered much under the hands of religious believers over the centuries and great quantities of misunderstanding have been attached to it. Though most believers would strongly condemn the standpoint of the Pharisees when it comes to the way that they transformed the Sabbath into a day of work in observing regulations and ordinances that were man-made (Mtw 12:1-14), we nevertheless seem to take great delight in bringing in similar ‘thou shalt nots’ when we think about Sunday - a totally different day of the week than the Biblical Sabbath and one which has no Scriptural foundation.
It’s also quite interesting to note that the people who insist on a rigid day of rest being held on a Sunday don’t then go on to state with equal fervency that the sevenfold Festivals of Jehovah should be observed but normally make a very big deal out of Christmas and Easter, both of which are christianised pagan festivals and which have no Scriptural commandment that lays them to be obligatory upon NT believers - even the latter name undermines the simple truth of the Gospel for ‘Easter’ comes from the worship of a pagan deity (see my notes on Passover).
We would do well to try and put aside our pre-conceived beliefs concerning the Sabbath and concentrate solely on the Biblical narrative if we’re ever to arrive at a solid foundation from which we can go on to see how the statutes relate to our present day society and, more especially, to believers and any responsibility that they may have concerning it.
We need to note from the outset that the word ‘Sabbath’ in the Bible refers to our ‘Saturday’ and is used repeatedly in these notes with only this meaning. When ‘Sabbath’ is used, it never means ‘Sunday’ unless specifically given that meaning in context.
Pre-Law (a natural Sabbath)
In Gen 2:1-3 we get the first mention of the Sabbath where it’s stated that
‘...God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it...’
That is, God separated the seventh day and made it special, a day of rest. It was only after He’d already created the heavens and the earth in six days (or ‘earth cycles’ - that is, one revolution of the earth about its axis) that He took a rest - a rest of achievement. It was as if He stood back from His work like an artist after finishing some great masterpiece and admired His Creation.
Although the word ‘Sabbath’ didn’t come to be used in Scripture until the time of the Exodus, the term is rightly applied to this passage and by taking a ‘cessation from work’, God wove into the framework of the universe His intention that man should both work and take a natural rest.
The rest, then, has to do with accomplishment - not a day of rest first at the beginning of the week that looked forward to the work that was about to be done, but a day of rest after having accomplished something.
In Mark 2:27, Jesus expands upon the reason for the Sabbath, commenting on the teaching of the Pharisees who had turned it into more of a day of bondage than of rest by the time of the NT, pointing out that man was created first upon the earth on the sixth day and, after that, the day of rest was instituted by God.
Man was, therefore, pre-eminent with regard to the Sabbath, God showing that it was created for the benefit of man and not that man was created to conform to the rules surrounding it. That is to say, the Sabbath was not first structured and arranged and then, into this arrangement, man placed to observe the structure - but the Sabbath was brought in as a benefit for mankind and was meant to serve his needs.
After the institution of this day at the end of Creation, mention of it doesn’t occur again until the Israelites have come out of Egypt. The Bible is silent as to whether the patriarchs kept it though the absence of a reference doesn’t mean that it wasn’t observed as a day of rest and, as a lot of the Law was foreshadowed in what the Israelites were already observing in some manner within their own culture, it would seem a fair assumption to speculate that a day of rest was part of their society. This point is no more than speculation, however.
But, more than this, we read in Ex 16:22-30 about the incident of the manna. Here God emphasised that the seventh day was a day of rest on which no work was to be done and, as such, the Sabbath is spoken of before the Law was given - this presupposes that some sort of Sabbath was already being recognised and observed or the words would have made little sense to the nation.
Notice that Ex 16:29 reads that
‘...YHWH has given you the Sabbath’
paralleling Mark 2:27 (above) and teaching plainly that
‘...the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath’
Finally, in Ex 20:8-11, God showed that this natural day of rest was the day that He’d written into Creation when, in giving the Law at Sinai through Moses, it’s recorded specifically that the reason for this command was that
‘...in six days YHWH made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it’
Not only was the sabbath a natural provision for all men, woven into the framework of Creation, but it was also legislated for that rest from one’s labours might not be taken away from the people of God. This day, however, was a Saturday not a Sunday.
The Mosaic Law (a spiritual Sabbath)
The Mosaic Law didn’t just teach a day of rest, but it taught the Israelites that they were to work six days and on the seventh they were to take a Sabbath. The Sabbath was conditional upon working six days (Ex 20:9, Deut 5:13) - just as God had ‘worked’ for six days in bringing into existence the universe before deeming it necessary to ‘rest’.
Today in the Western World, many workers take both Saturday and Sunday as days of rest after having worked five days, but the legislation was specific that six days were to be worked. It would be going too far to say that God commanded that six days had to be worked and it’s better to see in God’s words the safeguard being stated that it mustn’t be expected of any Israelite to work more than six consecutive days without having a day off.
That there was much exploitation (especially of slaves) in the ancient world is fairly well assumed and the Sabbath legislation should be seen in this context of legislating against the oppression that came about through excessive expectation of the work force.
The Law gives three explanations for the Jewish observance of the Sabbath:
1. Reason - Rest after work
Ex 20:8-11 (esp v.11)
The fourth of the ten commandments given at Sinai.
It was a day of rest based on the Creation system that God had introduced into the structure of the universe. It’s also spoken of as a sign between God and Israel (Ex 31:17) that
‘...in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed’
Therefore, whilever the Sabbath was being celebrated weekly, it served as a reminder to the people that God had brought all things in to existence and that the day of rest was part of His original intention for mankind.
Today, of course, in a world that only sees the hand of impersonal forces bringing the world in to existence, the Sabbath will have lost its meaning.
2. Reason - Rest after bondage
Deut 5:12-15 (esp v.15)
The fourth of the ten commandments repeated by Moses in the land of Sihon (Deut 4:44-46)
It was to be a day when Israel would remember the forced slavery that God had delivered them out of and, subsequently, the rest that He’d brought them in to. But, more than this, the passage cited here says that the commandment concerning Sabbath observance was given to them because God had delivered them from the hand of the Egyptians - His intention was that rest should be written in to their society so that they wouldn’t find themselves bound into a way of living that mirrored what He’d brought them out of.
Necessarily through this remembrance, the day would turn into a day of thanksgiving and worship, the title of Ps 92 noting that this was a song that was specifically written for use on the Sabbath.
3. Reason - Proof of separation
Ex 31:13, Ezek 20:12
The Sabbath was to be a sign to Israel that it’s the Lord who sanctifies them/makes them holy (where ‘sanctification’ means, very simply a ‘separation’ both ‘from’ and ‘to’ something). Separating the Sabbath to be observed in obedience to God’s command, showed practically that God had separated them to Himself and that they took that separation seriously.
Therefore it was a weekly reminder and demonstration both to themselves and to God that they intended following both the Lord’s Word and His ways.
In Is 56:3-5 we find the plight of the foreigner and of the eunuch commented on by God. Because, by keeping the Sabbath, the covenant was proclaimed and an individual’s separation to God was remembered, then even those people who considered themselves alienated away from the presence of God would be acceptable to Him through their observance (where that observance was matched by an acceptable lifestyle).
This, then, was the sin of not observing the Sabbath - it denied the sanctification (the separation) of themselves to God and of what God had done for them by separating them from all the other nations.
But, if the Law was solely concerned with the OT people of Israel, then we can learn very little from it. If it was only a commandment that was given to a historic people for them to be able to demonstrate weekly their separation to God, then we’ll fail to grasp any significance of the Law as it may apply to us.
But the Law is a shadow (or ‘an illustration’) of what was going to be made available to those who believed in the One who was to come, Jesus Christ (Heb 10:1, Col 2:16-17) though it would not be able to convey the actual realities. The Mosaic Law could only show Israel what was shortly to take place but it couldn’t bring about those promises (see also the Introduction under 'Christ in the OT').
Therefore, when Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, he couldn’t give them the true rest that God longed to give them - the only rest that could be imparted was rest from war. But when the true Joshua came (‘Jesus’ being the Greek form of the Hebrew name ‘Joshua’), the Sabbath rest of God became available to all men through the work of Christ on the cross.
Following the points above (a-c), we see in Christ the fulfilment of what the Sabbath could only point towards:
1. Reality - Rest after Jesus’ work
God’s rest foreshadowed in the OT legislation is that ‘rest of achievement’ that He took on the seventh day of the universe. In Christ’s achievement on the cross (the completed work of salvation), we see that God ‘rests’ because the totality of the necessary work has been performed. But, more than this, man can also enter into that rest by faith, for there’s nothing that he can achieve or attain by his own self-effort and there’s nothing that he can earn however much he tries that will make him acceptable to God.
When we read in Heb 10:12 that Jesus is ‘sitting’ after having offered an acceptable sacrifice to God, then we’re reading the assertion that indicates to us that the work has been completed - Jesus, having accomplished, sits down to rest and no longer stands ready to work (see my notes on ‘Ascension’ under 'Seated at the right hand').
2. Reality - Rest after legalism’s bondage
All the children of God enter into God’s rest when they enter into and experience the work of Christ. For as one man worked for the righteousness of others, so those people for whom He worked can rest in the perfect righteousness of Christ (see my notes on ‘Justification/Righteousness’) - that is, they need not strive to achieve right-standing with God based on legal requirements, but can freely accept it by faith.
In Mtw 11:25-30, Jesus proclaimed that all who were labouring and were heavy laden should come to Him for rest, that a union with Him is a deliverance from the struggles and toils of men’s lives. The Jew who worked so hard to be righteous by their good works could never attain the ‘rest of God’ for inwardly they were always striving to be legally correct, being in bondage to a religious code. Only in the New Covenant is it that this can be seen to be of no consequence in pleasing God.
Just as in the OT, this leads a believer on to respond with worship and thanksgiving.
3. Reality - Living out separation to God
Because a believer has that rest in their life - the peace that doesn’t strive after legal perfection and righteousness - we see that they’re separated to God’s service by faith in the work of Christ.
God has called a people together who are separated to Him to be obedient to His will (I Peter 2:9) but it’s still up to them to live out the reality of that separation - not in withdrawing from the world and locking themselves away from society, but in going out in to the world and showing those around them what their ‘separation to God’ means.
Before we finish this section, we need to look briefly at Heb 4:9 which runs that
‘...there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God’
and which implies that the Sabbath rest spoken of here is in the future - that it’s something still to be obtained. This is, of course, quite true, but it’s equally true that we taste now only of those things that are to come in the future age when God’s visible Kingdom is established on earth (Heb 6:5).
Thus, the Sabbath rest that believers now enjoy because of Christ’s victory is both available at this present time to all who believe and available to all who are then in the coming Kingdom. Even though we can see a fulfilment of the OT legislation as above, there’s necessarily a time coming when that rest will be complete.
That’s why Rev 14:13 talks of a future time when there’s rest from labours noting
‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord...that they may rest from their labours...’
The Greek word for ‘labours’ (Strongs Greek number 2873) here carries with it the idea of pain - through the righteous deeds of God’s people, persecution descended upon those believers, but that pain, trouble and turmoil is swallowed up in peace and rest as they pass through death into God’s presence.
The same is true in Is 57:1-2 - the Lord takes the righteous man out of trouble through death so that he enters into the Sabbath rest of God. Death, then, is also the time when a follower of Jesus Christ will cease their earthly life and struggle against evil and enter into the Sabbath rest of God.
But, for now, they taste of those things that have been fulfilled in the Law and which are freely available in Jesus.
The New Covenant and the Sabbath
By the time Jesus was around, the Sabbath had been made more into a day of bondage than a day of rest as many of the Rabbis’ rules and regulations restricted what could and could not be done. I’ve read somewhere that there were thirty-nine articles each with thirty-nine points (making 1521 points) that had been drawn up and which bound Israelites to their observance of the Sabbath at a later date to the first century (for example, John 5:10) and, though it’s certain that they wouldn’t all have been in existence in Jesus’ time, the point still remains that the interpretation of the Sabbath had become a legalistic one which was more burdensome than liberating.
Instead of being a day of delight and a day on which rest could be experienced from the labours of the preceding week, it had become a day on which lives had to be strenuously submitted to the doctrines of men who’d sought to hedge the Law about that it’s complete observance might be achieved. As such, it took away from God’s original intention.
When Jesus argued with the religious leaders of His day concerning the Sabbath, He was arguing against the unrighteous and unlawful restrictions that they’d placed on the day. After showing what the true Sabbath rest of God was (Mtw 11:25-30 - see the previous section and my notes), Jesus then went on to cause controversy in the way both He and His disciples observed the Sabbath. Two specific instances are set out for us by the Gospel of Matthew immediately following Jesus’ declaration:
1. Mtw 12:1-8
Pp Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-6
Principle - Human need always outweighs any observance of the Sabbath because it was made for man and not the other way round (Mark 2:27).
In Mtw 12:3-4 we see that Jesus’ reaction to the Pharisaic accusations was to quote an example from the OT. David, a man after God’s own heart (I Sam 13:14) and of whom it’s recorded that he wholly followed God all the days of his life except for one specific incident (I Kings 15:5), ate of the bread of the presence which it was not lawful for him to eat - only the priests had that right (Lev 24:9). The incident showed that David’s need took precedence over the religious observance of the Mosaic Law.
Having just referred to the bread of the presence, the following reference to an unspecified commandment (Mtw 12:5) may refer to Lev 24:8 in which the priests were to lay the bread of the presence out before the Lord every Sabbath, thus breaking the day of solemn rest by performing their work.
Alternatively, it may be a reference to the rite of circumcision that Jesus spoke of in John 7:22-24 after He’d healed a man on another Sabbath who’d been lame for thirty-eight years. The priests, in order to keep the Law, circumcised newly-born children on the eighth day after birth but by working on the Sabbath, they also broke the Mosaic Law that they were trying to keep.
Jesus isn’t condemning the priests for circumcising the child on a Sabbath, but He’s speaking against the Pharisees who justified this need of the Mosaic Law but who refused to accept Jesus’ teaching that human need outweighs a religious observance of the day of rest.
Human need must always override religious expediency and need - but note those words carefully. We’re talking here about ‘need’ and not ‘want’. Jesus was only teaching that a man’s needs take priority - not his desires and wishes.
2. Mtw 12:9-14
Pp Mark 3:1-6, Luke 6:6-11
Principle - Life is to be preserved, saved and restored even on the Sabbath and it therefore takes precedence over it (Luke 6:9).
Jesus was living out the reality of what He asked the Pharisees in the parallel passage in Luke 6:9 when He asked
‘...is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?’
This principle, strangely enough, is also contained in the Mishnah (the Rabbis’ oral law) in Yoma 8:6 in a slightly different form where it states that
‘...whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger, this overrides the Sabbath’
The difference here between the two passages, though, is that the Rabbis would probably have argued that, in this case, life wasn’t in danger and Jesus could have waited until the following day to heal him.
That would have been the case if the power to heal was something that Jesus could dispense at will rather than rely upon the movings of the Father to heal as and when He revealed to Him that He should. In the case under discussion, however, being obedient to the oral code of the Pharisees would have meant being disobedient to the voice of God.
The works of God, then, are those that save life from destruction and restore it into God’s original intention for His Creation, and always override the legalistic observance of the Sabbath.
It’s interesting to note that the disciples seem to take great delight in listing the times when Jesus healed men and women on Sabbaths! In John chapter 5 we find another such incident (v.9) where Jesus sees the need and heals a man who’d been ill for thirty-eight years. When confronted by the Jewish leaders, Jesus further angers His opponents by proclaiming that (v.17)
‘My Father is working still and I am working’
Instead of trying to ameliorate their concerns, He states that God is working on the Sabbath which is why the invalid was healed. This left them no choice but to accept His radical (to them) view of the Sabbath or to reject His assertion that it was God who’d performed the healing.
God works on all days - even the Sabbath. But such words cut through the legalistic observance that the Jews had built round that day (see, for instance, the tractate ‘Shabbath’ in the Mishnah). It’s not surprising, therefore, that clinging on to their interpretation of the Law, they rejected the works of God throughout Jesus’ ministry.
Like many other teachings, specific revelation as to the requirements of christians under the Mosaic Law wasn’t given until the need arose in the early Church. The apostles and elders gathered in Jerusalem to discuss this entire point many years after Christ’s ascension and the conclusion was drawn that made no mention of the need before God to participate in the Jewish Sabbath (see Acts chapter 15 especially v.28-29).
Indeed, there’s only a small handful of regulations that the Church in Jerusalem found it necessary to impress upon Gentile believers as worthy of adherence. Subsequently, Paul, on his missionary journeys, affirmed the decision wherever he went.
Paul, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, taught the church in Colossae that the Sabbath was but a shadow of the good things that are available to all who believe in Christ (Col 2:16-17). And to the church in Galatia, his message was that the observance of a written code was to submit oneself to self-justification before God and not to avail oneself of the righteousness that is given freely in Christ (Gal 4:8-11).
The Sabbath, being a part of that written code, is by implication included in it and there was no necessity, with regard to salvation, to observe it.
But the Sabbath rest promised by God through Moses is now available to all who believe in Christ - it’s a matter of the heart and not of a legalistic observance of a written code. Gentile (non-Jewish) christians are not obliged to observe a natural Sabbath by commandment.
It was, by and large, the Puritans who were responsible for the view that the Lord’s day (that is, Sunday) should be regarded as the christian Sabbath and, as such, it’s taken the place of the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). But this extreme viewpoint caused a rigorous legalistic observance of the first day of the week so that its bondage became equivalent to that of its Jewish counterpart.
Interestingly enough, the Scriptures used are somewhat puzzling when considered in the light of this assertion. It’s supposed that the mention in Acts 20:7 of the believers coming together to break bread on the first day of the week (Sunday being the first day as Saturday, being the seventh, would be the last) is a reference to the ‘special’ day that the believers came together to break bread - but the Scripture doesn’t say this. It only says that they broke bread and that when they did it on the first day of the week it was Paul who taught long in to the night. Acts 2:46 says that the habit of the early Church was to break bread daily, not to break it just once every week. Justification for meeting together on a Sunday and to break bread while together is also harvested from Acts 20:7, of course.
I Cor 16:2 also mentions the first day of the week in the context of putting aside some contribution for the relief of the Jewish believers. But, again, this doesn’t have to refer to a special weekday on which the Church met to worship Jesus - their worship continued daily as has been previously noted.
Appeal to the day on which Christ rose from the dead (Sunday) is also often cited as being a good reason for making the day special and to be observed as the believer’s day of rest. Although it’s true to say that the evidence suggests that the early Church met to worship God on Sundays, if they did do so it wasn’t that they were compelled from a theological standpoint but because they chose to do so.
Besides (and let us repeat this again!), the early Church met every day to worship God. By our elevation of one day above all others, we’ve tended to forget the importance of the other six and push christianity into the restrictions of one seventh of our lifetimes rather than a hundred per cent of it.
Finally, appeal to Rev 1:10 that the ‘Lord’s Day’ mentioned here refers to Sunday and therefore a special day when John was attending to some form of religious observance (being ‘in the Spirit’) is quite preposterous. It’s only because we’ve labelled Sunday as being the ‘Lord’s Day’ that we interpret the passage to refer to this specific day of the week - if we had no such equation in our heads, the normal OT interpretation of the phrase would push us to see it as a reference to the day on which the Lord acted (the OT ‘Day of the Lord’), perhaps even the final ‘Day of the Lord’ that John is about to detail to Christ’s followers.
It was only ‘in the Spirit’ that John could have seen it and it was in this state that he would have been transported into Heaven to witness the unfolding of future history seen from God’s viewpoint (Rev 4:1-2).
The teachings of the Reformers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and who I always thought would have been fundamentally committed to the observance of Sunday as a special christian day to be observed - just goes to show you how much I know!) brings home the truth to us concerning the observance of Sunday. These quotes - all taken from Zondervan - are significant because of the way they cut across accepting traditional interpretations and to hold fast to what the Scripture actually teaches.
After all, if a believer accepts the Bible as ‘all sufficient’ as some of the statements of fundamental belief maintain, they should be restricted by what it teaches. Zwingli commented that
‘If we would have the Lord’s day so confined to a certain time, that it shall be thought wicked to transfer it to another time...this day, so scrupulously limited to a certain day, would impose on us a ceremony. For we are in no way bound to time, but time ought so to serve us, as to make it lawful, and permitted to each church, when necessity urges...to transfer the solemnity and rest of the Lord’s day [sic] or Sabbath to some other day’
Calvin, also, maintained that
‘Christians...should have nothing to do with a superstitious observance of days’
even though he saw the advisability of setting apart one day in seven as a day for christians to meet together, treating the observance of Sunday as a matter of expediency and not as an adherence to a ceremony or rite. Luther also stated that
‘...no day is better or more excellent than another...’
so that the testimony of the Reformers was that there was a danger in thinking that one specific day should be set aside for it restricted the christian from freedom.
It’s good that all men have the same day of rest for many reasons (a day of rest based upon the teaching of Creation), not least being the witness of the Church meeting together. But the family also needs a day put aside from all others in which it can settle down to relax with one another and develop its relationships. Today, as we see the break-up of the family unit, we see the break-up of one day set aside for its upbuilding and sustaining for the two go together hand-in-hand.
Whatever day we choose as christians (and Sunday is as good a day as any other), it shouldn’t be a ‘busy’ day but a day of rest and relaxing with the family, something that a packed Sunday church programme doesn’t always allow for.