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The Sabbath

By Richard Gunther


Every Easter some Christians become quite annoyed because of a small (but growing) number of businesses which remain open during the Easter holiday. From the annoyed Christian's point of view, these days are holy, and besides, they say, the Easter break includes the sabbath day, on which, they say, no work should be done.

Then there are Christians who try to preserve Sundays as a holy day, for themselves and for the whole nation. If these Christians got to be the goverment, Sundays for rest would be the law.

And then there are the Seventh-Day Adventists, who maintain that Saturday is the true sabbath day.

Not to mention the Jews, who keep Saturdays for a totally different reason. They have been counting the days ever since Israel walked out of Egypt and it is part of their identity as jews to keep the sabbath.

No wonder there is confusion over the subject.

What does the Bible say about the sabbath?

The first thing we find when we look for the sabbath in the Bible is the fact that the word "sabbath" simply means "rest" or "cessation". It is first mentioned as part of the Creation week - God ceased creating on the seventh day.

Later, it is referred to as a "perpetual covenant" and a "sign" between Jehovah and Israel forever (Ex.31:17)

In the Old Testament Law, people were forbidden to do "work" on the sabbath day (Ex. 20:10) which meant that even the kindling of a fire for cooking was ruled out (Ex. 35:3) - and even the animals had to comply. After a while such things as burden-bearing, travelling and trading were part of the banned things - Jer. 17:21, Ex.16:29, Amos 8:5. The sabbath, or "rest" was also part of the financial and property laws of Israel. The land was given a rest every seventh year. The Year of Jubilee came every seven x seven years, when all debts were forgiven, all land was returned to its previous owners and slaves were allowed to go home free.

The sabbath is also included in the Ten Commandments.

But when we come to the New Testament, and the New Covenant, we find that the sabbath law is not even mentioned. In fact, while nine of the ten commandments are included in the new covenant, the sabbath is ommitted. This means that the church is not obliged to keep the sabbath.

The New Testament does more than omit the sabbath. It categorically declares that all the old sabbath regulations have been repealed - Col. 2:16,17, Gal.4:10-11, Rom.13:5. (And remember, in Colossians, Paul was writing to Gentiles, who would have had very little understanding of the details about the sabbath. They would have understood it as simply "the seventh day of the week" - the Jewish sabbath day.)

So why do Christians usually choose Sunday as their sabbath day? There are some critics who say that Sunday was chosen because of pagan influence in the early church, but if this was so, it started very soon after the church was born. For example, Barnabas - AD100, Justin Martyr - AD145, Irenaeus - AD155, Tertullian - AD200 and Eusebius - AD315 all observed Sunday as the sabbath.

Melito of Sardis - AD170, wrote a thesis on Sunday as "the Lord's day". The Didache - written about AD200, talks about Sunday as "the Lord's day", and Ignatius - AD107 wrote to the Magnesians:

"If we are living in the practise of Judaism, it is an admission that we have failed to receive the gift of grace. We have seen how former adherents of the ancient customs now order their lives . . . .to profess Jesus Christ while continuing to follow Jewish customs is an absurdity. The Christian faith does not look to Judaism, but Judaism looks to Christianity, in which every other race and tongue that confesses a belief in God has been comprehended."

Because Jesus rose on the first day of the week, it was a logical choice for the church to commemorate this great event by making Sunday a day for worship and celebration. But Jesus never instituted Sunday as a sabbath day, nor did he ever command believers to make it a separate and special day. In fact, by the resurrection, Jesus led all believers into a new sabbath rest, one that is perpetual, and not confined to just one day of the week. (Heb.4:1-10)

In Heb. 4:1-10, the writer draws a contrast between the sabbath given to Israel by Moses, into which Joshua was unable to lead Israel, and the sabbath into which Christ leads us. The sabbath for the church is not meant to be the observance of a day, but in "ceasing from our own labours", so that we can trust in the completed work of Christ. The writer says "we who believe enter into that rest" -v3.

What all this means is :

Christians can choose to worship God on any day they like. (Rom.14:4-6)

Christians must be careful to keep their personal beliefs to themselves, and try not to offend other Christians by their own freedom. (Rom.14:22, 1Tim.4:1, Mat.7:12)

The New Testament gives no mandate to anyone to demand that the sabbath be kept, or not kept.

The only certain injunction on believers is that they assemble regularly, at an appointed time and place, for fellowship, prayer and so on. Naturally, true believers would want to do this, so there is hardly a need to tell them to do it. (Ps.26:8, 27:4, 88:4,10, 122:1, Eph.4:11-13, Heb.3:13, 10:25, Jer.3:15)

The sabbath was given to Israel as a sign of the covenant relationship between the nation and God. The sign and the covenant were linked, and there were 'strings attached'. If Israel broke the terms and conditions of the covenant, heavy penalties would be incurred (Ez.20:12)

But Christ has abrogated the old covenant, making it obsolete. Logically, since the sabbath laws were part of the whole Law, then they too must be abrogated. The collapse of the old covenant has made the sign of that covenant redundant. (Heb.8:13)

Another sign which God used to forge a bond with his people was circumcision. But that too has become obsolete for believers. Circumcision has been replaced by baptism, and believers are said to be "circumcised in their hearts" (Rom.2:28,29, 4:11,12, Col.2:11-14).

Another way of looking at the sabbath question is to start with a single sabbath law. If you try to keep it, you find that there are other sabbath laws connected to it (with penalties attached). The more of these connected sabbath rules you try to keep the more there are, until you end up staggering under a colossal load of laws. Obviously, this is not the kind of freedom which Jesus gives to believers.

There is simply no sound argument to make it compulsory for Christians to observe the Old Testament sabbath. The other other nine commandments, yes, we must keep them, because they are part of the obedience required under the terms of the new covenant, but the fourth commandment - no!

Christians are called into freedom, not legalism.

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