Monday, February 26, 2007

The Sabbath

I was about to start blogging Leviticus 23, and I started writing about the Sabbath. And then it quickly became apparent that it was going to turn into a post on its own, so I made it into one. (Which you are reading right now.) The question I’m investigating here is: Does the Sabbath apply to the Christian? If so, is it different than how the Sabbath applied to the Old Testament Israelite?

Most, if not all, of the rules and regulations about worship of the LORD, in the Old Testament, no longer apply to the Christian. Christ’s sacrifice paid our debt once and for all, and bought our way not just into heaven, but into a relationship with God that the Old Testament Israelites probably would have been surprised at.

Many of the other laws of the Old Testament Israelite nation don’t apply either—at least, not in the same way. New Testament Christians trust in Christ’s salvation, rather than in obedience to the law. But that being said, it is still true that we should not murder, or steal, or lie, because we are trying to be like God, and God does not do these things. It’s not in His character to do these things.

But what about the Sabbath? Should the Christian still avoid work on the seventh day of the week? After all, Paul chastised the Galatians for observing “special days and months and seasons and years” in Galatians:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you 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.

….

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

(Galatians 4:8–20)


Paul doesn’t want the Galatians to have a “false zealousness,” if I may coin that term. But Paul sees their observance of “special days and months and seasons and years” as just that—they’re being zealous, but for the wrong things. But is the Sabbath included in that?

Jesus mentions that he is the “Lord of the Sabbath” in Matthew 12:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

(Matthew 12:1–14)


The point of this portion of the Scriptures isn’t about the Sabbath, per se, so much as it’s about how the Jews in Jesus’ day defined “work.” They put healing under the “work” category, which is why they got angry with Jesus for healing the crippled man. However, Jesus is also making the point that he was the Lord of the Sabbath; that the rules about the Sabbath were changing, because of him.

But when he is talking about the “end of the age,” a few chapters later, and mentioning that Judeans will be fleeing to the mountains, he tells them to pray that this won’t happen in winter or on the Sabbath, which indicates that people would still be observing the Sabbath:

So when you see standing in the holy place “the abomination that causes desolation,” spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, “Look, here is the Christ!” or, “There he is!” do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. (Matthew 24:15–25)

Also, the same “Lord of the Sabbath” incident is reported in Mark 2, with an extra sentence not in the Matthew account:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

(Mark 2:23–28, emphasis added)


Another point to add to the confusion is that the rules concerning the Sabbath aren’t just in the book of Leviticus, or in sections of the Bible outlining rules for Old Testament priests—it’s also mentioned in the Ten Commandments.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8–11)

Many Christians, if asked what rules the Christian should follow, would probably immediately turn to the Ten Commandments—especially in this day and age, when many (if not most) Western Christians don’t spend that much time actually reading or studying their Bibles, and wouldn’t know where else to turn.

So which is it? Is a Christian to observe the Sabbath, or not? A quick Google search for “Christian Sabbath” turned up a few opinion pieces, and, although I didn’t read many, the few I dipped into all indicated that yes, Christians should be observing the Sabbath. (Rather vehemently, I might add.) Which makes me hesitant to give any opinion, however, since this is a blog, and bloggers do nothing but give opinions, I will anyway.

I don’t think the Sabbath applies to the Christian. Wait! Hear me out! Don’t just close your browser in disgust, or start firing up your email client, to send nasty missives in my direction!

Like so much of the Old Testament, our views of the Sabbath should change, with the coming of Christ. When God commanded the Sabbath in the Exodus passage above, He called it a “Sabbath to the LORD”—not just a day of rest, but a day set aside for the LORD. Why did God talk about the Creation in His commandment about the Sabbath? Because He was reminding the Israelites that He created the universe—the Sabbath was a day set aside to worship the only one worth worshipping.

But when Christ came, he took a religion that was very personal—the Israelites were to try to be like God—and made it even more so, by pointing out that it isn’t just our actions that make us sinful, it’s our thoughts and desires, too. I think the same applies to the Sabbath; it’s not just one day a week, that we are to set aside for worshipping God, but we should always be in a state of worship.

The most common verse that might occur to the Christian, when I say that, is “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God;” that’s a bit out of context, when you just take the verse by itself, however, I think the overall passage is applicable:

“Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake—the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

(1 Corinthians 10:23–33)


What is Paul talking about here? He’s talking about taking the freedom we have in Christ—freedom from the rules and regulations of the Old Testament system—and using it appropriately. Sure, I’m allowed to eat any kind of meat that I want, but if by doing so I’ll cause someone else to stumble, then I should avoid it.

Does that also apply to “freedom from the Sabbath?” If I am, indeed, free from the Sabbath, how should I use that freedom?

Let me take that question in a different direction: If I’m created for the purpose of worshipping God, if I’m supposed to be in a constant state of worship, then wouldn’t I want a day to set aside for that purpose? Not just a day to go to church—although, in this day and age, that’s a big part of it—but a day set aside for Him?

Like any of the other Old Testament laws or regulations, I don’t think the Sabbath applies to the Christian. I don’t believe we’re commanded to set aside the seventh day of the week, every week, and forbidden from doing work on that day. However, what does that mean, practically, for the Christian?

Here are some thoughts:
  • It means that people who have jobs that sometimes require them to work on Sundays don’t have to worry about this, in terms of sin.
  • It means that any discussions/disagreements/arguments about what day of the week the Sabbath should fall on—Saturday, Sunday, Monday, or some other day—are irrelevant to the Christian.
  • In light of the 1 Corinthians passage above, when Paul is talking about not using our freedom to cause others to stumble, it means that we should be careful to keep that in mind in regards to the Sabbath, too. Picture the following conversation:

    Christian: Are you allowed to do that today? It’s Sunday, after all.
    serna: Sunday? Pfft! Sundays don’t matter!

    What is this person going to think, after this conversation? That the Sabbath is an Old Testament construct, and not applicable in the same way to the modern-day Christian? Or that one can take God lightly, and disregard His commands at will?
  • Since my life is to be one of worship, it means that Sunday is a unique opportunity to get together with fellow Christians, members of the Church, and worship God “corporately.” (That means a bunch of individuals coming together as a whole—one “body,” if you will.) Most commentaries on the Sabbath in this day and age will probably get around to the fact that simply going to church on Sunday morning is not what the Sabbath is all about; and yet, at the same time, it can’t be denied that going to church is probably the most important thing most Christians do on Sunday. (For most of us, it would probably be considered the best part of the day.) As much worshipping as I may do during the rest of the week, Sunday provides a unique opportunity to do it with other Christians.
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