Monday, April 03, 2017

The Sabbath

A long time ago—a long time ago!—I received a comment on the post for Matthew 12:9–14 asking about the Sabbath. In that passage Jesus gets into a disagreement with the Pharisees because they believe that healing should not be done on the Sabbath (since they consider it a form of work), whereas Jesus obviously disagrees since he keeps doing it. It’s pretty clear that the Pharisees are wrong in their understanding of the Sabbath and how one should observe it, but the commenter, if I might paraphrase, is asking how Christians should observe the Sabbath (the underlying assumption seeming to be that we should). So let’s do something I almost never do, and delve into a controversial topic: What is my understanding of the New Testament teaching on the Sabbath?

Since this is an issue where the new covenant Christian understanding is potentially different from the old covenant Jewish understanding, I thought a good place to start would be to look for every usage of the word “Sabbath” in the New Testament and see how it’s used. I did a search (in the English Standard Version), and found 63 occurrences of the word “Sabbath,” which can be categorized as follows:
  • Arguments with the Pharisees about their understanding of Sabbath rules
  • Events that happened to fall on the Sabbath day, with no moral importance attached either way
  • As an informal unit of measurement (“a Sabbath day’s journey”)
  • A comment by Jesus, while talking about the end times, that people should pray that it doesn’t happen on the Sabbath
  • Paul telling the Colossians not to let anyone judge them with respect to “questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath”
  • The book of Hebrews talking of a Sabbath rest for the people of God
The overwhelming majority of cases where the word is used in the New Testament are in passages in the Gospels where the Pharisees believe Jesus has sinned by doing something on the Sabbath—often healing someone—and Jesus argues that their understanding of the Sabbath is flawed, even in the Jewish context. (When I say “even in the Jewish context” I mean that whether or not the rules have changed for modern day Christians, the Pharisees should have been observing the Jewish rules at the time, and they misunderstood those rules.) Regardless of what the Sabbath means for the Christian, I think we can all agree that the Pharisees’ understanding of the Sabbath was incorrect because Jesus told them so. Over and over again.

The next highest category of the occurrence of the word is instances where it’s simply mentioning that the action taking place happens to be on the Sabbath, without any moral importance attached to it either way. For example, if the disciples went to the synagogue to preach to the Jews on the Sabbath they would have been doing so because that’s when the Jews would be at the synagogue. These occurrences of the word don’t really help us much in trying to determine if or how the Christian should observe the Sabbath.

The next category of usage of the word, which only occurs once, is in Acts 1:12 (ESV) where it is used as a unit of measurement to tell us that Jerusalem is about “a Sabbath day’s journey” from Mount Olivet. This was based on a set of rules that limited how far a Jewish person was supposed to walk on the Sabbath, and I was pointed to a website that talks about how far they were really allowed to walk (though, as indicated on that site, the rules seemed to be ever changing). Again, this usage has no moral importance attached to it either way. I doubt “a Sabbath day’s journey” is actually intended to be an accurate measure of distance, it seems to me that it’s sort of akin to us saying that something is “a stone’s throw away.” It gives you a general approximation of the distance, but isn’t intended to tell us that Jerusalem is 4,000 cubits or 8,000 cubits or whatever from Mount Olivet. (Frankly, most of the things that I’d say are “a stone’s throw away” I wouldn’t actually be able to hit with a stone.)

The next usage is interesting, and may play into this conversation. In Matthew 24:15–28 (ESV) Jesus is talking about the Abomination of Desolation, and tells his listeners that when we see this Abomination of Desolation we should flee—not even stopping to gather our things, we should just run—and says in verse 20 that we should pray that this doesn’t happen in the winter or on the Sabbath. Hmm… Does this mean that Jesus believes that it’s wrong to run (or run too far) on the Sabbath, even in the face of the Abomination of Desolation? Does this verse mean that Christians are to observe the Sabbath, in one form or another? I don’t think so, but before I explain why I’ll look at the next couple of instances of the word “Sabbath” in the New Testament, and then I’ll come back to this.

The next instance of the word “Sabbath” in the New Testament is in Colossians 2:16, and now we’re at a passage that is directly relevant to our discussion. In context, this is part of a larger passage from Colossians 2:16–23 (ESV) in which Paul instructs the Colossians not to be led astray by people who are trying to tempt them away from the Gospel with regulations that have an “appearance of wisdom,” but are “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (And this passage is, in turn, part of the overall book of Colossians, in which Paul is warning the people of Colossae against false teachings that will draw them away from the work that has been done by Christ.) In this passage Paul lumps observance of the Sabbath together with “questions of food and drink” and festivals, and tells the Colossians not to let anyone judge them on such matters.

Now before we go any further into Paul’s argument, we can stop here on a particular point: Paul tells the Colossians to “let no one pass judgment on [them] in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” I know there are a number of denominations which believe that the Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday, and that Christians are to observe the Sabbath similar to how Old Testament Jews would have observed it, refraining from “work.” They will cite the fact that the Sabbath was initiated in Genesis, before the ten commandments were even handed down, as a sign that observing the Sabbath is something larger than the Jewish commandments, and that therefore it still stands for modern-day Christians. (Never fear, we’ll come back to this point, too.) Some will go so far as to say that not observing the Sabbath—or worshipping on Sundays instead of Saturdays—puts you in danger of the judgement of God, which is what I’d like to focus on for a minute: Paul specifically tells the Colossians not to let anyone judge them regarding questions relating to the Sabbath. Does that not fly in the face of those who would judge you for not observing the Sabbath [correctly]? I’m not usually comfortable calling out specific denominations, but if you get into a conversation with someone from a Seventh Day Adventist church and they tell you that you’re in danger of Hell because you worship on Sundays instead of on Saturdays, is that person not disregarding a very specific passage from the Apostle Paul, which directly concerns the Sabbath?

Of course nobody who calls his or herself a Christian wants to believe that they are disregarding a portion of Scripture, so they have to do something with this verse. It seems to say that we should not let others judge us with regard to the Sabbath, and yet these people believe that God will judge us harshly for not observing the Sabbath (and seem to believe that we can also judge each other for it). Their answer is that the word for “Sabbaths” in Colossians 2:16 is plural, and that what it’s actually referring to is any Jewish ceremonial celebration day. In other words, the argument goes, this verse isn’t talking about the Sabbath, it’s talking about any other Jewish holiday or festival. The assumption seems to be, in that context, that Paul is telling the Colossians, “don’t let anyone pass judgement on you with regard to any sabbath (other than the Sabbath),” and just not spelling out that last part.

I ask you, however, does that not seem to be a bit of a stretch? That Paul would use the word “sabbath,” but not actually mean the Sabbath, he just means all of the other Jewish special days? And that Paul, the lawyer, would not clarify this point, but just assume that we would know that he didn’t really include the Sabbath in that list?

Remember, this is the same Paul who wrote this:

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19–23 (ESV), emphasis added)
Did Paul really need to say that he is not under the law? Probably not; it’s one of his predominant themes throughout his letters in the New Testament. Did he need to clarify that he is under the law of Christ? No, I don’t think he needed to specify that; it’s obvious. Being like a non-Christian in order to save them doesn’t mean that Paul started sinning wildly. But he wanted there to be no mistake about this, and so he put in those parenthetical remarks to make sure we’re absolutely clear on his point. But some would have us believe that when Paul tells us to let noone judge us with regard to “sabbaths,” he doesn’t mean the Sabbath—yet why would he not put in that type of clarifying parenthetical remark? They hardly seemed necessary in the 1 Corinthians passage but they seem crucial in this passage if what Paul is really saying is, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath (except for the actual Sabbath).”

To their credit, by the way, many in the Seventh Day Adventist church are starting to back away from this strict teaching that those who worship on Sunday instead of Saturday are on their way to Hell. But by no means are they all backing away from it; there are people in my [Baptist] church who have been told by friends and family that they are going to Hell for worshipping on Sunday.

To get back to Paul’s larger point, his argument is summed up in verses 20–23:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”—(referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
If you are a Christian you have been saved by the work of Jesus Christ. The rules and regulations which came before, including the Sabbath, are but “a shadow of the things to come,” and the “things to come” are Christ, His work on the cross, and the many ways Christianity supersedes Judaism. It’s tempting to want to go back to rules and regulations to try to please God (as long as we can pick the ones that we think we can keep), but God is already fully pleased by the work that Christ has done on our behalf. Going back to these rules and regulations, as Paul says, has an appearance of wisdom but is of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

So what of the argument that the Sabbath comes from Genesis, not from Exodus, therefore predating the Jewish Law (it even predates the rules on circumcision which were given to Abraham), and therefore that it is more central to God’s will, and not specific to the Jewish religion? (In Genesis 2:1–3 (ESV) God blesses the seventh day and makes it holy because He rested on that day, though the word “Sabbath” isn’t used.) Because this rule on the Sabbath was given before there was even a Jewish nation, right at the very beginning of creation, does that not mean that the Sabbath applies to all people everywhere—and in every time period? Yes and no. It definitely does… but not in the way that you might think. And we can find out why in the last New Testament passage that mentions the word “Sabbath,” in the book of Hebrews.

The verse in Hebrews which contains the word “Sabbath” is 4:9, but it’s part of a much longer passage of Hebrews 3:7–4:13 (ESV). In this passage the author is talking about “rest” for God’s people, and the fact that throughout the history of God’s people they’d never been able to find that rest. There are specific mentions of people who were disobedient to God (and therefore God would not let them enter his rest), followed by warnings to us not to have evil, unbelieving hearts which would prevent us from entering that rest.

Remember that the book of Hebrews was written to show how new covenant Christianity is better in every way than old covenant Judaism: how Jesus’ ministry is better than that of the priests and High Priests of Judaism; how Jesus’ one sacrifice was better than all of the sacrifices that came before Him. All of the rites and rituals and regulations of the Old Testament were imperfect reflections of the perfect work that Jesus was going to do on the cross. Along these lines, the “rest” that the Israelites had longed for, but had never been able to achieve through their own work, has now been accomplished through the work of Christ:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:9–10 (ESV))
For the author of Hebrews, the observance of the Sabbath was yet another shadow of things to come (to steal Paul’s line from the Colossians passage above); there still remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. This, like the rest of the New Testament (and, for that matter, the Old) is good news. Through all of the work that had been done before Jesus, and all of the work that has been done since Jesus went back to Heaven, nobody has ever been able to earn the “rest” that God promised—but through the work that Jesus did, rather than through our own work, we can enter God’s rest.

In fact, let’s be very clear about this word “rest:” what are we resting from? Are we resting from our jobs? Are we taking a break from the hard work we’ve been doing throughout the week? The Old Testament rules regarding the Sabbath are very clear: the Israelites were to “rest” from their “work.” But is that the New Testament understanding of rest? According to this passage in Hebrews, what we are resting from is the work we’d been trying to do to earn God’s favour; we’re resting from the Law, resting in the work Christ did to buy us God’s favour. The Old Testament rules regarding rest from work were yet another shadow of the things to come; resting from physical work as a picture of the future rest that was to come from slavery to the law.

So what is the New Testament understanding of the Sabbath? Jesus is the Sabbath—Jesus is our rest in God. The observance of the Sabbath in the Old Testament was a picture of the final rest we’d have in Christ—rest from our works, which cannot earn our salvation. To cling to an observance of the Sabbath as a special day is to deny the work that Christ has done, and is to try to earn favour with God through our own work, but the passage we’re looking at in Hebrews tells us that this isn’t possible. Remember back in Genesis 2 when God blessed the seventh day and made it holy? It was a picture of the rest we’d be given from our work. Even right at the very beginning of the Bible God had no doubt as to what He was going to do about our sin problem. As it says in the aforementioned Hebrews passage, “his works were finished from the foundation of the world.”

So we have seen a passage from Colossians in which Paul tells the Colossians not to let anyone judge them with regard to Sabbaths, and we have seen a passage in Hebrews that teaches us that the Sabbath is only a picture of the rest that we enter into when we take advantage of God’s work instead of trying to rely on our own. So what about that strange passage from Matthew 24, when Jesus tells his listeners to pray that their flight from the Abomination of Desolation will not occur on the Sabbath? What do we make of that?

First of all, I decided to tackle this passage last for a reason: When we have two passages that talk clearly about the Sabbath and God’s rest, and then one that might disagree with those passages (but in an oblique way if it does), then rule #1 for the Christian Bible reader should be to take the clear passages over the unclear passage. If you think this passage is unclear, and that it might indicate that Jesus is worried about us keeping the Sabbath, you have a problem in that there are two very clear passages in Colossians and Hebrews which indicate that this probably isn’t what Jesus meant. So what did he mean?

Occam’s Razor—the simplest answer is usually the right one. Instead of looking for deep meanings in Jesus’ words, read what the passage is actually about. When Jesus tells his listeners to pray that the Abomination of Desolation won’t be in the winter or on the Sabbath, he’s simply making the point that his listeners should pray that nothing will hinder their flight; as the note in the ESV Study Bible puts it, “They should pray that the harshest conditions and most revered traditions not be a hindrance to fleeing.” Jesus is not making a statement about the Sabbath, he’s making a point that people will want to flee from the Abomination of Desolation as quick as they can, without any impediments. If Jesus were here today and giving this message, He might say “pray that your car doesn’t run out of gas”—but that doesn’t mean that he’d be making a statement on usage of fossil fuels! Jesus’ listeners at the time he said this were Jewish, and would have been hampered in their flight by their traditions. They got Jesus’ point; it’s only us, in modern times fighting over the Sabbath, that might try to read other points into Jesus’ message than what He actually put in there.

So if I were to sum up what I see in the New Testament regarding the Sabbath, I’d come away with two points:
  1. According to the passage in Hebrews, the Sabbath Rest we have is not a day of the week, and it is definitely not a set of rules that we keep. It is exactly the opposite: a lifetime rest from slavery to the law, which could never have saved us in the first place. We are not working to earn God’s favour, He has already earned it and we can now rest in it.
  2. As I have kept quoting from the Colossians passage: Let noone judge you with respect to the Sabbath.
If you are using Sunday (or, for that matter, Saturday) as a day in which you can be devoted to God, and reflect on Him, that’s a very good thing. It’s something we should all do, much more often than we probably do; going to a service for a couple of hours one day a week isn’t enough to keep us close to God, and devoting an entire day to the endeavour is definitely a good thing. If you prefer to avoid certain activities on that day, because they hinder you in this goal, by all means, do so. Where I stop short, however, is when the concept of the Sabbath becomes a “rule” that we’re to follow, in the sense that it was a rule for Old Testament Israelites to follow. My reading of the New Testament teachings on this topic don’t allow me to treat it as a “rule.”

As I look through the New Testament for what it teaches on the Sabbath, that’s what I come away with. But if I were a gambling man, I’d say it’s probably controversial in some circles—and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of the few posts on this blog that actually garners comments—because it touches on a dividing point between two of the dominant Christian viewpoints: Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology. If you’re not a pastor, and haven’t gone to seminary, there’s a good chance you’ve never encountered these terms before, so in the future I’ll have a quick [ha!] post on these two theologies, which will illustrate why you might disagree with me on the Sabbath (and probably some other things, too).

In the meantime, if you do want to leave a comment, feel free to do so. I’m not interested—at all—in winning an argument, but I’m more than happy to have a discussion about a potentially controversial topic, with the intent of exploring the Scriptures and how we can best follow God and enjoy His Grace. (I don’t always maintain this blog actively, so don’t expect quick responses to anything.)

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