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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Should Christians Observe the Sabbath?

An electrical shabbat lamp. Should
every Christian have one of these?
From time to time this question still comes up among believers, particularly converted Jews or those accustomed to highly liturgical traditions.

Lauren F. Winner, for example, advocates a modified Sabbath observation for believers, despite evidently having read what the apostle Paul has to say about it.

Today’s post provides a useful counterbalance to that sort of thinking. RJA considers two significant aspects of Sabbath observance: its Biblical origins, and the question of whether or not the Sabbath should be observed by Christians today — Tom

The word Sabbath has its origins in the Hebrew word shabbat, from a root meaning “to cease, desist, or rest”. In both ancient and modern Judaism, the observance of the Sabbath has been regarded as a sacred and inviolable duty. Over the centuries the original, relatively simple biblical concept of a weekly day of rest has been increasingly embellished with the prohibitions, rituals and ceremonies of rabbinical tradition, but the essential spirit of the Sabbath rest remains unchanged.

The Origin of the Sabbath

In Scripture, the concept of the seventh day of the week as a time of rest from work is introduced early — indeed, as early as creation itself. Genesis 2:2-3 tells us that “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done”.

Of course, an infinite and immortal God has no physical need of rest as humans do; rather, He was deliberately setting a precedent for His creatures:
“For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
(Exodus 20:11)
If God Himself is prepared to observe a Sabbath rest, then certainly no mere mortal should be reluctant to do likewise.

The formal institution of the Sabbath did not occur, however, until many centuries after creation. It is first mentioned in Exodus 16:23, where Moses explains to the Israelites in the wilderness that on the sixth day of the week they are to gather and prepare enough manna for two days instead of the customary one. On the seventh day they are not to gather manna, for none will be given them. Rather, they are to remain where they are and rest, eating the manna they have stored up in advance. 

Although the Sabbath is named and instituted in this passage, it did not immediately receive its full formal significance, for the violation of the Sabbath by some of the Israelites earned them no more than a verbal rebuke.

Later, however, the Sabbath was explicitly codified in the Mosaic Law, even receiving a central place in the Decalogue:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates”.
(Exodus 20:8-10)
Keeping the Sabbath was a sacred sign between God and Israel, a day “holy to the Lord” and violation became punishable by death. When a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath contrary to the Lord’s command, he was stoned to death by the community. Thus it was clear from the very beginning that this day of rest was not to be taken lightly.

In addition to abstaining from work during the Sabbath, the Israelites were to remember their slavery in Egypt and the Lord’s deliverance. In the Tabernacle on this day, fresh cakes of showbread were set in order before the Lord and a burnt offering was made consisting of two year-old unblemished male lambs and a measure of fine flour mixed with oil. This was all the ritual required of the Israelites by the Torah.

Should Christians Observe A Sabbath Rest?

Although few outside Judaism would advocate that the modern-day Jewish observance of Sabbath be extended to all professing Christians, there are many who believe that the biblical injunction to keep the Sabbath has been grievously neglected by Christianity. With the exception of the Seventh-Day Adventists, who worship on Saturday, most of the Sabbath-advocates regard Sunday as the “Christian Sabbath” and believe that it should be scrupulously observed by Christians as a day of rest similar to that commanded in the Old Testament. The support for this view, however, is questionable in light of the rest of scripture.

There is certainly nothing wrong with taking a day out of the week to rest and to occupy one’s thoughts with the things of God. This is good for the body and for the soul. Even secular medical experts agree that a day of rest each seven-day cycle is an excellent idea. However, this does not mean that Christians are responsible before God to observe the Jewish law of the Sabbath. 

Firstly, the Jews observed Sabbath on the last day of the week, Saturday, and that is the day on which they met together to read the Law and the Prophets in the synagogue. However, when the early Christian church desired to set aside a regular day to read the Scriptures and break bread together, they chose the day on which Christ had risen from the dead, which was Sunday. John called this “the Lord’s Day”. If Christians use Sunday as a day of rest and meditation on God’s Word, they are doing a godly and sensible thing, but they are not actually observing the Sabbath, because God specifically designated Sabbath as the last day of the week. Since Paul could often be found both preaching in the synagogues on Sabbath and with the believers on the Lord’s Day, and since the term “Sabbath” is never used in Scripture to refer to any day but Saturday, it would seem clear that early Christians did not confuse Sabbath and Sunday or regard the Lord’s Day as “the Christian Sabbath”.

Secondly, the Sabbath was given to the Jews as part of the Jewish Law, but it was never given to the Gentiles. Paul wrote a letter to the Colossians, a Gentile church, in which he pleaded with them not to listen to Jews who insisted that Gentiles could not be right with God unless they observed Jewish customs, laws, and special days.

He said:
“[L]et 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. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Paul made it clear that it was not right for either Jews or Jewish believers to judge the Colossians for not keeping the Jewish rituals and ceremonial laws. He said that the Law was only meant as a shadow or a symbol of what Christ would bring when He came. In Christ the believer enjoys a rest from his works and the assurance of an eternal rest in heaven, the ultimate fulfillment of that which the ancient Sabbath anticipated in a merely ritual form. Since the Colossians already had Christ, the reality, they did not need to cling to the Law, the symbol, in order to be right before God.

Since Sunday is not the Sabbath, since the Sabbath law was given only to the Jews and not to Gentiles, and since all Christians are “no longer under the law, but under grace”, we may conclude that there is no Scriptural basis for insisting that Christians must observe the Sabbath.

Though the Sabbath was undeniably given by God to the nation of Israel in the past, and though Jews continue to observe the Sabbath in their own way today, the Christian is free to enjoy the true and lasting spiritual rest of salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

RJA

Republished by permission

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