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The seventh-day Sabbath is taught and kept
holy in accordance with biblical instruction. Instituted at Creation, reaffirmed to Israel
as a part of the covenant at Sinai and taught by Jesus Christ who is the Messenger of the
New Covenant, the observance of the Sabbath is considered basic to a Christian's
relationship with God.
The Church of God continues to observe the seventh-day as
did Jesus and the New Testament Church. The Sabbath was established by God at
Creation week; it was made for man, reaffirmed by Jesus, taught by the apostles and kept
down through the centuries by faithful Christians. The importance of the Sabbath in the
Old Testament cannot be disputed. Its continued observance is exemplified in the New
Testament which confirms Sabbath-keeping as a fundamental practice of Jesus and the
The original twofold functions of the Sabbath in the Old Testament were
not ceremonial. The Sabbath (1) provided needed rest for the body and the psyche; and (2)
gave opportunity for closer contact with God through study and prayer. When God
established Israel as His people, the Sabbath was utilized as the time for congregational
services, a commanded assembly of all the people. These needs are still very much extant
in the 21st century.
The weekly Sabbath celebration serves as a reminder that God is Creator
by its regular memorial of the Sabbath of Creation. It also affords a view toward a future
new creation resulting from God's Kingdom on earth.
While a simple, straightforward command from God to keep the Sabbath
would be sufficient for us to keep it, an understanding of the Sabbath's purpose and
intent is helpful and enlightening. The purpose behind most laws is clear, and that which
lies behind the Old Testament commands about the Sabbath is evident. Once this purpose is
understood, it becomes obvious why no New Testament restatement of the basic command was
necessary or even likely. The New Testament discussions and examples concern how to
keep the Sabbath (in spirit rather than in a rigid, legalistic manner), not whether to
The most important New Testament statement on the Sabbath was spoken by
Jesus Christ as quoted in Mark 2:27-28. Jesus not only affirms the Sabbath command, He
also instructs us about its purpose. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for
the Sabbath: therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath." Thus, it is
apparent that the Sabbath was made for men, for his spiritual and physical benefit. It
provides the means for loving God to a greater degree by direct worship and, indirectly,
by the spiritual renewal which enables one to keep up a constant direction of mind toward
godly matters throughout the week. It is in our earnest attempt to express loyalty and
love toward our Creator and to worship Him in spirit and in truth that we, as Christians,
continue to keep the seventh-day Sabbath.
The English word "Sabbath" is basically an
anglicized pronunciation of a Hebrew word meaning "rest" or "repose." This
Hebrew noun is itself evidently related to the verb "to stop, rest or cease."
This same verb is found in ordinary usage (e.g. Lam. 5:14, "The elders have
ceased from the gate"). "Ceasing " is exactly what God did on the seventh day of
Creation week. In the Hebrew, Genesis 2:2 literally says that God
"sabbathed"-ceased" or rested-on the seventh day from all His work.
By definition, the Sabbath is a
weekly holy day, a solemn rest, an appointed feast, a holy convocation (Lev.
23:3). As such it is a period of time of approximately 24 hours reckoned from
Friday evening sunset until Saturday evening sunset. The period of observation
is borne out by the direct statement in Leviticus 23:32 on observing an annual
Sabbath, "from evening to evening."
Old Testament Period
The initial and cardinal passage about the Sabbath is contained in the
Creation account which reads: "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and
all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had
made, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And
God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it" (Gen. 2:1-3).
Since from the beginning the Sabbath is associated with Creation week
and specifically the creation of man, the Sabbath's universal or cosmopolitan perspective
sets it above any uniquely Israelite law and practice. The Creation Sabbath is presented
in much the same way that the later prophets envisioned itnamely as an observance
for all mankind, for the Gentile as well as for the Israelite. Therefore, while the
Sabbath was later a functional part of the covenant at Sinai (Ex. 20-24), its purpose and
place are clearly much broader than that. (For example, Isaiah 66:23 shows that all
nations will be observing the Sabbath during the millennial reign of Christ.)
In Exodus 16 the Sabbath is once again explicitly mentioned. This
chapter records God's revealing of which day was indeed the seventh of the weekthe
Sabbathto the nation of Israel. God's great efforts to show Israel His true Sabbath
would, of course, be natural in light of the importance given the Sabbath in the Creation
account. He would surely want His chosen people to know which day He had earmarked as
"blessed and sanctified."
The account of Exodus 16 shows the great importance God places on a
specific period of time for the Sabbath. The true Sabbath could never be just one day, any
day, out of seven. God caused special miracles to ratify the holiness of the
Sabbathdouble the normal amount of manna was found on the sixth day and the extra
manna did not spoil when left until morning as it would have on any other day. And when
some Israelites went looking for manna on the Sabbath, God told Moses, "How long
refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws?" (v. 28). This statement is especially
relevant since it took place before the covenant at Sinai, proving both that the
Sabbath predated that covenant and that it is included as one of God's commandments and
The additional significance of the account of Exodus 16 lies in the
fact that it shows the supreme importance of the Sabbath to God. The fact that God
revealed and maintained the identity of His Sabbath to Israel by the daily and the weekly
miracles of the mannaalong with the clear example of the types of punishment meted
out upon those who broke the Sabbath as recorded in these versesreemphasizes that
God's original Sabbath command was a law of extreme importance. The fact that the events
described in Exodus 16 actually occurred in Israel before the institution of the
covenant at Sinai corroborates the truth that the Sabbath was not, as some contend,
only part of God's specific pact with that nation and hence of significance to no other
people. But even then, the inclusion of the Sabbath by God in His covenant with
IsraelHis clear delineation of the Sabbath as one of the Ten Commandments in Exodus
20only adds weight to its importance, rather than detracting from it. At the
making of the Sinai covenant the Sabbath was one of the Ten Commandments recorded on the
tablets of stone and kept inside the ark of the covenant. Other terms of the covenant were
considered of less significance as was shown by their being kept outside the ark. Once
again, it is only logical that God would include in His covenant those laws and principles
He knew would be good for Israel, especially because Israel was a nation He hoped would be
the example and showcase to the world.
Under the Sinai covenant, the Sabbath had national significance; its
observance involved the entire community. God showed this by adding to the original
Genesis command a communal responsibility of Sabbath-keeping which involved children, male
and female servants and even animals and strangers within Israel's boundaries (Ex.
God's Sabbath command of Exodus 20:8, "Remember the Sabbath . . .
to keep it holy" represents an example of God definitely tutoring His special people
in the obedience of a universal law, rather than His singling out one nation for obedience
to an exclusive law not meant for the rest of mankind. The admonition,
"Remember," itself indicates that this commandment is not instituting the
Sabbath for the first time, but rather enjoining Israel to keep and retain what is already
in existence. The Sabbath was in existence before Israel. Some quote Nehemiah 9:13-14 as
disproof of this. Actually, these verses show the opposite. God gave Israel right and true
and good laws, statutes and commandments, and He made known to them His Sabbath. It
does not say He originated or instituted the Sabbath with themit says He made
it known to them. Israel had lost knowledge of it at that time, as Gentiles
have today. But God revealed the Sabbath to Israel, who was to become His covenant nation.
God did not create the Sabbath at Sinai, but rather made it fully known at that time.
Just as the Sabbath was commanded before the covenant of Exodus 20-24,
so the Sabbath was also given as a separate covenant with special significance in Exodus
31:12-17. It is referred to as a "sign" (Hebrew 'ct) of the special relationship
between God and Israel. (Signs referred to elsewhere as evidence of covenants are: the
rainbow in regard to God's covenant with mankind, Genesis 9:8-17; and circumcision as a
sign of the covenant with Abraham, Genesis 17:1-14.)
Why was God's Sabbath day singled out in Exodus 31 as a sign? Because
of its nature. Many other nations kept some of the laws of God in one form or another.
Some had fairly tight moral laws, usually criminal ones. But none kept the Sabbath day. It
was the one law of God that would make Israel stand out. It would act as a sign to show
that Israel was the nation of God. It would also keep Israel knowledgeable of God as
Creatorthe one true God who made everything. When the nations of the ten tribes of
Israel later gave up this Sabbath sign, they were lost to history. But the Jews continue
to keep it to this day, and are known by it. It is even called "Jewish" by
others. The Sabbath is the one commandment of the ten that will maintain a direct
line to God.
This Sabbath covenant of Exodus was to be "perpetual." With
reference to this, some quote passages referring to the sacrificial system being
"forever" (e.g. Ex. 29:28) and conclude that when the Bible uses the term
"forever," it does not mean that at all. This is not correct. The word in Hebrew
translated "forever" in most instances is olam. It can mean "the
world" or even "the age." From this we can come to the basic meaning of olam,
that of continuousness. It essentially gives the concept of a situation in
which there is no end in sight; this does not have to mean that there is no end,
just that no end is seen from the immediate perspective. In some scriptures (e.g.
Ex. 21:6) olam obviously means "continuously," whereas in others (e.g.
Ps. 10:16) the same word means "eternally. " What about "forever" in
Exodus 31? The key idea to remember is that olam means to do something continually
or that some condition exists continually. So we must go by the context. In the
case of a command of God we can say that it is in force until God says differently. In the
case of Exodus 31 the Sabbath remains between God and His people. God never did say
stop. God still only deals with IsraelAbraham's seedbut in the New Testament,
"Israel" has become spiritual and all peoples can, through Christ, become
"Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29), which
promisesalvation"is of the Jews" (John. 4:22). Everyone has to become
a part of Israel in order to enter into God's covenantal relationship. The Church is the
Israel of God (Rom. 9:6-8). So the Sabbath remains a sign to show just who is in that
covenantal relationship with God, just who the true Church is or who the people of God
are. This Sabbath covenant is not the same as the Sinai covenant of Exodus 20-24. So the
modification of that Sinaitic covenant to the New Covenant does not necessarily affect the
Ezekiel 20:12 shows that God gave Israel His Sabbath as a sign
for another reason as well: so that they would continually know who was the God that sanctified
them. This means that the Sabbath is one means by which God sanctifies a method God
has chosen of consecration by setting apart for a holy purpose. Certainly sanctification
is even more important in the spiritual sense of the New Covenant than it was in the
physical sense of the Sinai covenant. Consequently the meaning, impact and importance of
the Sabbath in its widest spiritual intent under the New Covenant, far from being
diminished, must in fact be intensified for Christians.
Since the Sabbath began at Creationnot with the Sinaitic covenant
with Israeland then was made a special sign in a covenant forever with
Israel, we still know the Sabbath as God's covenant people today: it is still the same
Once again, the purpose of the special Sabbath covenant of Exodus 31
was to earmark Sabbath observance as a distinguishing practice that would help identify
God's people among the world's populace. Thus it served to differentiate the true
believers from the nonbelievers, God's people from the heathen, and not merely the civil
Israelite nation from the Egyptian or Canaanite nations. Since the Sabbath was an
important religious command of God, its observance helped to identify God's religious
system and not merely a civil system or ethnic group. For this reason this special
Sabbath Covenant applies today, with the same spiritually binding significance for all who
wish to become and remain a part of God's true Church.
Leviticus 23 enumerates the Sabbath as one of the appointed feasts of
the Lord. Other passing references in the Pentateuch and historical books do not shed
significant further light on what has already been mentioned. However, several important
scriptures are found in the later prophets.
One of the greatest indictments against the people for
Sabbath-breakingalong with a warning that such action would result in the overthrow
of Jerusalemwas made by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 17:19-27). Jeremiah was ordered
to stand in the gates of Jerusalem and warn the leaders and people: "Take heed for
the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day, or bring it in by the
gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any
work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers" (vv. 21-22).
Verses 24-26 promises that if the people should keep the Sabbath day
holy they should be blessed, and the city of Jerusalem should remain forever. But verse 27
goes on to warn of the dire consequences of negligence in regard to the Sabbath:
"then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem
and shall not be quenched." This threat was made good: the city of Jerusalem was
overthrown, its palaces and Temple burned and the nation of Judah taken into captivity.
Disobedience toward the Sabbath command was evidently widespread among the people in the
latter years of the period of the monarchy. Jeremiah 17:23 confirms this fact: the people
of Jerusalem did not heed Jeremiah's warning to keep the Sabbath ("they obeyed not,
neither inclined their ear, but made their neck stiff, that they might not hear, nor
Ezekiel also speaks quite strongly against breaking the Sabbath and
considers it one of the main reasons why Israel went into captivity. The lengthy passage
in 20:10-26 is a scorching, indictment of the continual disobedience of the nation. The
captivity was the fulfillment of a promise in the wilderness: "Moreover I swore to
them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them
through the countries, because they had not executed my ordinances, but had rejected my
statutes and profaned my Sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their fathers' idols"
(vv. 23-24). This is a very succinct summary of the cause of the Exile. Clearly, one of
the major reasons was profanation of the Sabbath.
Isaiah also emphasized the importance of the Sabbath for Israel:
"If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your
pleasure (pursuing your own business) on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and
the holy day of the Lord honorable; . . . I will make you ride upon the heights of the
earth" (Isaiah 58:13-14).
However, more universal in nature is the promise to the Gentile
("the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord") who shall keep the Sabbath.
Not only shall they be accepted, but those unfortunate enough to be eunuchs shall receive
something far greater then children for their faithful Sabbath observance (Isaiah 56:3-7).
While this promise is set in the context of national Israel, its international scope
cannot be ignored.
The captives in time were freed and some returned to Palestine. The
books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe their return and their attempts to rebuild the city of
Jerusalem and its Temple. Nehemiah 10 records a special covenant made by some of the
people, including Nehemiah, in which they "entered into a curse, and into an oath, to
walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all
the commandments of the Lord our Lord" (v. 29). Among the provisions of this covenant
was that "if the peoples of the land bring in wares or any grain on the Sabbath day
to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on a holy day" (v. 31). These
verses make it obvious that Nehemiah and the people deeply recognized the seriousness of Sabbath-breaking
and its part in bringing about their captivity.
Nevertheless, it did not take long for the emergence of a certain
laxity in this regard. Nehemiah soon found himself confronting a situation in which the
Sabbath was treated as an ordinary business day. He met the problem head on and apparently
solved it for the time being (Neh., 13:15-22).
During. the intertestamental period a great reawakening took place
among the Jewish community with respect to the importance of God's laws. One catalyst was
the remembrance of the exiles; another was the slaughter and persecution brought about by
Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century B.C. The Jewish community "built a
wall" around the law by adding regulations far beyond the biblical statements in an
attempt to make it "impossible" for anyone to even approach breaking the law:
the example of the Sabbath is a classic one.
Hence, as we approach the time of Christ's ministry, we find that the
Sabbath, due to man's sincere but exaggerated interpretations, had become not a joy but a
burden something not originally intended by God. As a result, Christ had to set out
to clarify the true "spirit" of the law.
New Testament Church
There is great emphasis on the Sabbath throughout the Old
Testament. Much is also written about Sabbath observance in the New Testament. The
emphasis changes, however, from a nationalistic system of communal Sabbath-keeping,
fulfilling the letter of the law, to an individual responsibility of personal worship on
the Sabbath, fulfilling the spirit of the-law. The issues discussed in the New Testament never
deal with whether the Sabbath should be kept. This would be utterly impossible as
we will see. Rather, the questions deal with how the Sabbath should be kept.
The seventh-day Sabbath is observed today by only a few, because it is
generally assumed that the New Testament shows the abolition of any need to keep the
Sabbath. This assumption is rejected by the Church of God. Granted, there is no explicit
statement such as, "Christians must keep the Sabbath." When we actually go back
to the New Testament environment, however, the fact that we should keep the Sabbath is so
plain that no such statement is required.
A clear understanding of the Sabbath in the New Testament requires a
brief summary of the state of Sabbath observance among Jews during Christ's time.
G.F. Moore, the well-known scholar of early Judaism, states: "The
two fundamental observances of Judaism are circumcision and the Sabbath" (Judaism,
II, 16). This was as true in the first century A.D. as at any other time. Both
practices were referred to as "signs" (Hebrew 'ot) and an "eternal
covenants" (berit 'olam) in the Old Testament. I Maccabees 2:32ff describes a
group of Jews who were slaughtered because they refused to defend themselves on the
Sabbath. As a result, Mattathias and his followers determined to fight in self-defense on
that day if necessary, but even then they would not take the offensive (I Macc. 2:41; 11
The book of Jubilees (2nd century B.C.) gives some detailed regulations
for the Sabbath.. Things forbidden included preparing food, taking anything between
houses, drawing water, riding on an animal or ship, making war or having sexual relations
(2:29-30; 50:8,12). The Qumran community had a number of the same regulations. Other
prohibitions included going more than a thousand cubits from one's town, helping an animal
out of a pit or in giving birth, and apparently even using an instrument to save a human
being from water or fire (Damascus Covenant 10.14-11.18).
Recent scholarly studies have emphasized the extreme strictness in, and
rigorous administration of, Sabbath observance in the days of Jesus, even when compared to
the later Rabbinic writings in the Mishnah.
Therefore, when Jesus was called into account for doing certain things
on the Sabbath, it was not for violating specified Old Testament prohibitions, but for
disavowal of noninspired, traditional regulations concerning the Sabbath. The Old
Testament did not forbid one to pick ears of grain on the Sabbath to eat on the spot. Yet
when Jesus and His disciples did this He was called to account. The reason? Because the
religious leaders had classified picking ears as "reaping" and rubbing loose the
grain as "threshing."
The incident of the disciples plucking grain to eat in the fields (Matthew
12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5) was no violation of property law since this was
specifically permitted in the Old Testament (Deut. 23:25). They were accused only of
Sabbath-breaking. Jesus did not defend their actions on the grounds that the Sabbath was
done away. Rather, He used relevant analogies: David and the showbread
(KJ.V"bread of the Presence," RSV) and the priests in the temple. It was
only after He had shown that the actions of the disciples were not a true violation of the
Sabbath that He asserted, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath:
therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27-28). By this means He
showed not that the Sabbath was done away but rather the correct spirit in which to keep
the Sabbath. Jesus was clearly a Sabbath-keeper, not a Sabbath-breaker.
Similarly, it was forbidden by extra-biblical Jewish law to treat a
sickness when the sick person's life was in no immediate danger. Although being watched by
the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Matthew
12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11). To defend Himself He used the analogy of pulling a sheep
out of a pit on the Sabbath. This shows that it was not His intent to break the Sabbath
but to show that relieving suffering was wholly consistent with the purpose of the day.
Similarly, when He healed a cripple who had been ill 38 years, He told
the man to pick UP his pallet and go home (John. 5:8). This carrying of a few ounces of
weight was in no way a violation of the law against bearing a burden on the Sabbath (Jer.
17:21,22,27). It was only in the opinion of certain onlooking religious leaders that He
had violated the Sabbath discussions given in the gospels. (Other healings are also
described in such passages as John 9; Luke 13:10-13; 14:2-4.)
One passage is undisputed, at least insofar as a clear reference to
Sabbath observance after Jesus own lifetime is concerned. This is Matthew 24:20:
"Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath." This admonition is
directed at Jesus own followers. And such instructions would have had little place
in a non-Sabbath-keeping community. Scholars are almost unanimous in agreeing that this
refers at least to a time as late as the 66-70 war against Rome, long after Jesus' death.
(The dual implications of this prophecy also show that Jesus knew that the Sabbath would
be kept by His people millennia later in the "time of the end.")
In addition, Christ's own example of attending the weekly synagogue is
significant. In Luke 4, Jesus attends the synagogue on the Sabbath day in His own city
"as His custom was" (v. 16). Evidently it had not been His custom heretofore to speak
in the synagogue since the listeners were astonished at his teaching. This indicates
He attended regular services as a means of Sabbath observance rather than just for the
purpose of teaching. And it is impossible to over emphasize the importance of Christ's own
example since He told His disciples to teach all nations those things that He had
commanded them (Matthew 28:20).
Thus, we may conclude that the picture of Jesus as a lawbreaker or
antinomian radical, while maintained in some fundamentalist circles, is easily refuted by
the scriptures and is also generally rejected by scholarship.
The argument that Christians today need not do what Jesus Himself did
and taught is refuted by Matthew 28:20, as mentioned above, where the disciples are told
to teach what Jesus had commanded them. Furthermore, Matthew
11:13 shows that "all
the prophets and the law" were in effect until John; this means that Jesus' own
actions and teachings were more than simply fulfilling the Sinai Covenantthey were
setting the proper example for all Christians for all time.
It is abundantly clear that the Jerusalem Church never gave up Sabbath
observance during the New Testament era. On Paul's last visit to Jerusalem (about 58-60
A.D.), James and all the elders of the Church told Paul how the thousands of converted
Jews "are all zealous ["ardent upholders," Moffatt] of the law" (Acts
21:20). In such an environment, it is inconceivable that the cherished and holy Sabbath
would no longer be kept.
In his letter to the Church in Rome in this same time period, 55-59
A.D., Paul reminds them that the Gentiles "have been made partakers of their
spiritual things" in a direct reference to the poor saints in the Jerusalem Church
for whom Paul was asking physical contributions (Rom. 15:26-27). One cannot imagine that
"partaking of their spiritual things" would not include worship on the Sabbath,
since it was fully revered by the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and constituted a
significant part of their spiritual lives.
The first ministerial conference in the apostolic Church is highly
informative both for what was said and for what was not said (Acts 15). In the year 49-50
A.D., the issue of whether circumcision was required for salvation caused such dissension
in the Church that Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to discuss the matter with the
apostles and elders. Various issues of current interest were discussedissues such as
idolatry, fornication and certain eating lawsbut the Sabbath was not discussed at
all. It was not relevant. Why? Because it simply was not an issue. Nobody in all
Christianity was as yet teaching that the Sabbath did not have to be observed and kept
holy by the Church. Just the opposite, in fact, appears to have been the case. James, who
seems to have been in charge, concluded by referring to what was actually happening in
that crucial time. "For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who
preach him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues" (Acts 15:21). As S.
Bacchiocchi, a scholar who has researched the question, writes:
"We should note that James' statement refers specifically to the
Gentile Christians outside Judea. It is therefore significant to notice that the Gentile
Christians (possibly former "Proselytes or God-fearers") were still attending
synagogue, listening to the reading and exposition of the Scriptures "every
Sabbath." The total silence of the Council on such an important matter as a new day
of worship [or elimination or even denigration of the long-standing day of worship] would
seem to indicate that such a problem had not yet arisen.
Thus it can be seen that Acts 15:21 is a very interesting scripture,
albeit, perhaps, somewhat enigmatic. James does not make a big issue about what he is
saying; apparently, he does not have to. He is simply explaining why this major conference
would only rule on a few things for the Gentile Christians to abstain from:
"pollution of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from
blood" (Acts 15:20). Obviously, there were other things Christians had to abstain
from, such as dishonoring parents, killing, lying, etc., but James is simply saying that
all these other responsibilities of Christians were well known since God's laws were read
every Sabbath in the synagogue.
As far as circumcision was concerned, a specific Church ruling was
made, in accordance with the binding and loosing authority given by God (Matthew 16:19), not
to require it for Gentile Christians.
The traditional anti-Sabbath rejoinder to Acts 15 asks how the
requirement for Sabbath observance can be left in while at the same time the requirement
for circumcision is ruled out? Or phrased another way, why would not the abrogation of the
Sabbath commandment be included within the abrogation of circumcision which
symbolized the Sinai covenant?
The answer is almost fully contained in the question itself.
Circumcision of the flesh indeed symbolized the Sinaitic covenant which had now been
superseded by the terms of the New Covenant. But the Sabbath far transcended the covenant
at Sinai in both directions: it was instituted at Creation, long before Sinai; and
it also foreshadows the future millennial rest in the Kingdom of God. The Sabbath, in
fact, shall be observed following the return of Christ when the fullness of the New
Covenant shall spread over all the earth (Isaiah 66:23).
The picture of the early Gentile Church in Acts illustrates continued
Sabbath observance. From Acts 13 we learn that the apostles Paul and Barnabas preached in
the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia on the Sabbath (v. 14). They were so successful that
they were asked back the next Sabbath. Acts 13:42-43 is then an interesting passage. It
shows that the Jews rejected Paul's strong message and went out of the synagogue.
But the Gentiles wanted to hear more and beseeched Paul to preach to them the
next Sabbath. Here are Gentiles, not asking to meet on a Sunday or a weekday evening,
but on the Sabbath. The next Sabbath almost the whole city came to hear Paul speak
(v. 44). Notice that the Jews were not a part of this; they were angry with Paul (v. 45).
This was a Gentile meeting (v. 48)on the Sabbath! They knew the significance
of the Sabbath day. If Paul had wanted to meet with the Gentiles on a Sunday, he could
easily have said: "We can just assemble tomorrow on the Lord's day." But this is
not the case. They all waited a whole weekthen on the following Sabbath day
we find Paul preaching to a whole Gentile city! He was not trying to impress the Jews.
They had turned from him. But Paul kept the Sabbath, and here endorses it for the entire
In Acts 16:13 Paul goes out to a place of prayer (apparently because
there was no synagogue). It was, in fact, Paul's custom to attend the synagogue on the
Sabbath (Acts 17:1-2). While these occasions were used as opportunities to spread the
gospel, as would be natural, they are certainly also further examples of Paul's
worshipping God specifically on the Sabbath.
The point that needs to be understood is that meeting on the Sabbath
was completely normal for the Gentiles. There was nothing extraordinary about it, nothing
to make an issue out of. What we find recorded in the book of Acts are some matter-of-fact
comments by Luke concerning what occurred. It was common knowledgeand Theophilus (to
whom the book was written, Acts 1:1) took for granted this factthat the entire
Church, Gentile and Jewish, met on the Sabbath as spiritual Israelites. This is what would
be expected: Paul preaching on the Sabbath and then meeting with Gentiles on the same day.
it was nothing unusual. So we can now examine Acts alongside the gospels and still find
no teachingnot even a hint of onethat the Sabbath day was removed or
changed. On the contrary, we find Jesus and Paul keeping it, teaching on it and meeting
with others to worship God on itall on the Sabbath.
It is also significant that the Sabbath is called the Sabbath. This was
not the common Greek way of referring to the seventh day of the week. So, Luke is actually
giving additional meaning to the Sabbath by referring to it by name. He does not call it
the "Jewish Sabbath" but simply "the Sabbath." (The Hebrewor
Aramaicword was, in fact, borrowed by the New Testament writers.)
Acts was written years after the resurrection of Jesus and the
establishment of the Church in Gentile as well as Jewish areas. If the Sabbath had been
removed, it should have been long since gone. The date was probably in the middle or late
60's A.D. It was not common for Gentiles to call the seventh day of the week "the
Sabbath," any more than it is common in the United States to call Saturday the
Sabbath (And Theophilus, to whom the book was written, could have been a Gentile.) So,
when Luke says that Paul went into the synagogue on the Sabbath, he is commenting
in effect that this was God's Sabbath or rest day, for he calls it just that. The
connotation would be the same today if we heard someone call Saturday "the
Sabbath"; we would think it significant and probably assume that that person kept
Saturday as his Sabbath or rest day. The same goes for Luke 23:56. The women rested on the
Sabbath "according to the fourth commandment." This is not meant as a
mere historical narrative but as a comment on that day actually being the Sabbath.
Calling the seventh day Sabbath then is very significant, especially around 63 A.D. when
Luke wrote his gospel. There is more concrete evidence in Acts that Paul and all the
apostles kept the Sabbath. Perhaps the strongest proof is that they were never accused by
the Jews of breaking it. Notice in this regard John 5:9-18 and 9:13-16. Here these men
thought Jesus had broken the Sabbath by healing on that day. They wanted to kill Him for
this and claimed the legal right to do so. This was serious. It was a major issue to them.
Then, in the latter passage, some of them conclude that Jesus could not be of God, because
He did not keep the Sabbath. What we find in Acts are similar vicious attacks on Paul but
a stark contrast regarding accusations about not keeping the Sabbath.
The Jews from Palestine were really after Paul. They wanted to find
something against him. He was constantly under attack. But he was never even accused of
breaking the Sabbath as was Jesus. This proves that he never even appeared to break
it, much less did he actually teach against it. Paul, in reality, kept more of the laws of
the Sinaitic Covenant than he had to (Acts 21:17-27), so obviously he kept the Sabbath
which was considered so much more important. Paul was not lying or giving witness to
something that was not true. James was not fooled. Acts 21:24 is true: that is what
Paul didhe kept the law even to the extent of "the customs." So it is
plain he also kept the Sabbath. The Ten Commandments or moral living are not even in
question. James was not implying in verses 21-24 that Paul was Sabbath-breaking, or lying,
or killing or otherwise breaking the law. There would have been no question on those big
matters. The question was how many of the ceremonies and rituals should a converted Jew
continue to keep?
We can be absolutely sure that the Jerusalem Church kept the Sabbath.
James and the others had favor with the peopleeven priests obeyed the faith
(Acts 2:47; 6:7). This would have been utterly impossible if the Church had been meeting
on Sunday (or any other day) and breaking the Sabbath. If that had been the case, it would
have been mentioned as the major accusation against, and problem for, the Church. The
Church was indeed persecuted by the religious leaders of the day, but not for
Scholars recognize that the Palestinian Christian churches continued in
Sabbath observance even after the break with Judaism. While the apostle Paul is
considered by some as an instigator of a full-scale departure from Jewish law, such an
interpretation depends in part on interpretations of documents outside and later than the
In several instances Paul appeals to Jesus' teachings as backing for
his own commands. We find three such major examples in 1 Corinthians alone: in chapter 7
(on marriage); in chapter 9 (on support of the ministry); and in chapter 11 (on the
"Lord's Supper"). If Jesus had done away with the Sabbath, it is inconceivable
that Paul would have been ignorant of the fact. Yet if Jesus had done away with the
Sabbath and Paul knew of it, it is absolutely inconceivable that Paul would not have
cited this as proof of his own alleged teachings against the Sabbath, if such he had
Certain scriptures in Paul's writings are often adduced as proof of his
alleged attitude that Sabbath observance is unnecessary or even evil. For example, it is
often held that Romans 14:5-6 shows that it does not matter which day one keeps holy, but
this is actually nowhere stated. Since eating is mentioned several times in the passage,
some commentators suggest it may be a question of fast days or something else to do with
food. Verse 5 speaks of esteeming one day above another but says nothing about the reason
for the preference. The word "esteem" (Greek krino) is not otherwise used of
keeping a holy day. Similarly, in verse 6, the word phroneo ("regardeth," KJV;
"observes," RSV) is not otherwise used to refer to the observance of festivals.
To use this passage as proof that Paul no longer believed Sabbath observance to be
necessary requires anti-Sabbatarians to demonstrate that this is in fact what lies behind
the statementsomething that has not been done up to this time.
The reference to "days, and months, and seasons, and years"
in Galatians 4: 10 is frequently applied to the Jewish Sabbath and holy day observance.
The basis for this is the apparent Jewish identity of those causing problems in Galatia.
That the troublemakers had certain characteristics which would gain them the label
"Jewish" is correct (e.g. circumcision), but this still does not delineate the
situation. Was it Pharisaic, was it Essenic, was it some sort of syncretistic group? What
part did astrology play? What was the makeup of the Galatian congregation? Such things are
often assumed rather than proved.
The fact is, we do not know anything about the group causing the
problem other than what the epistle itself tells us. To assume more than this is not to
rely on the evidence. Why does Paul speak of their "turning back" to the
"weak and miserable stoicheia" (v. 9)? These Galatians do not seem to be
former Jews, since they are receiving circumcision something Jews would already
have. Unless one takes the "turning back" as purely a metaphorical expression,
one would assume they are going back to their former pagan conditions.
Further evidence is found in the vocabulary here. Why would one speak
of "days" (hemerai), "months" (menai), "seasons" (kairoi)
and "years" (eniautoi), if one had the Old Testament festivals in
mind? One would expect to see "Sabbath," "festival days" (heorte),
or similar words but not vague references to "days" and problematic and
unspecified comments about "seasons" and "years." It is strange that
Paul manages not to use a single normal word for the weekly or annual celebrations, if
that is what he had in mind. We can only conclude that the passage cannot legitimately be
used as evidence of Sabbath abolition. Indeed, in the Gentile world, up to one third of
the days of the year were special in one way or another, with certain restrictions, etc.
In addition, certain months were considered sacred. The Jews never observed any months.
Colossians 2:16 is the first scripture to give a certain reference to
the Sabbath and annual, holy days. Yet again we have a problem of background. We evidently
have a syncretistic group exploiting the Church at Colossae. Certain ascetic practices of
pagan philosophies are mentioned (Col 2:8, 18-23). Therefore, it is not surprising that
Paul says, "Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink,"
since some people apparently were passing judgment. Of course, eating and drinking
are only a "shadow" . (forerunner) of what is to come, but the solid
"body" (ultimate goal) belongs to Christ. Does that mean we should no longer eat
and drink? Hardly. Paul is showing that the ascetic practices some wished to enforce were
of little real substance, Any eating or abstinence is not the end but only a means to an
end. A Sabbath observer could say the same about the Sabbath and holy days. They
arenot werea shadow of what is to come; and therefore are still important and
necessary, just as eating and drinking are.
What is Paul specifically instructing the Colossian Church? From our
historical perspective, it is difficult to know for sure. Could Paul be encouraging the
Colossians who were being troubled by pagan Gentiles who were criticizing the new converts
for keeping the Sabbath? Or was Paul allaying the fears of brethren who were being
criticized by strict, proselytizing Jews for the manner in which they kept the Sabbath?
(Since Jesus taught the Sabbath as a blessing for man and not as a burden upon
man, some extremely zealous Judaic factions might well have been claiming that the new
converts were breaking the Sabbath when in fact these converts were keeping it precisely
as Jesus Himself had done.) In either case, Colossians 2:16 is transformed into a clear
statement evidencing that Gentile Christians were keeping the Sabbath. What is
absolutely certain is that Paul is not speaking against Sabbath observance. If he were
teaching against the Sabbath in Colossians 2, the discussion in the New Testament would
have been enormous. No such discussion or dissension exists.
The fact that Paul expected Gentiles to keep the law is demonstrated in
many scriptures throughout the book of Romans (e.g. Rom. 3:31; 7:12, 22; etc.) Romans
2:25-29 is especially interesting and direct, though often overlooked. Here uncircumcised Gentiles
are admonished to be circumcised of the heart (v. 29) and to become Jews inwardly by
keeping "the righteousness of the law" (v. 26) and by fulfilling the law (v.
27). (Obviously Paul could not have meant the full Sinaitic Covenant in his use of the
term "law" here, since circumcision was a part of the law.) Only with God's Holy
Spirit, through Christ, can a human being fulfill the righteousness of the law (Rom. 8:4)
and "delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Rom. 7:22).
Aside from the actual New Testament verses in which Sabbath observance
is directly mentioned, the question of why the Sabbath law is not repeated as a
direct command must be addressed. A comparison of the treatment in the New Testament of
the law of circumcision and the Sabbath (the two great pillars of the Jewish faith in
Christ's time) will illustrate the problem, and supply the solution.
Sabbath observance was a practice among all Jews, in Palestine as well
as in the diaspora. In fact, Sabbath observance was very influential in the Roman world as
a whole among non-Jews. *
* This is clear from the number of references in various
writers in the First centuries B.C. and A.D. Horace shows that many people had
"joined" the Jews or at least were careful of what they did on the Sabbath to
avoid offending Jewish scruples (Satires 1.4.14ff; 1.9.60ff). Ovid indicates that
many young Roman maidens frequented the synagogue on the Sabbath (Ars amatoria 1.75
and 415). Other writers indicating widespread Jewish influence, often with Sabbath
observance of some sort, include Tibullus (1.3.13ff); Seneca (Epistle 2.40); and
Juvenal (Satire 14.96ff). One historian summarized the situation as follows:
"an observance of the Sabbath ... became very common in some quarters of Rome under
the Empire" (Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, 84).
Circumcision was also a major pillar of the Jewish faith. For a male to
become a full proselyte to Judaism, circumcision was required. Not unnaturally, few males
were willing to take this course, yet this did not prevent many from becoming
"God-fearers" or "semi-proselytes." This was especially popular
outside Palestinein the diaspora. It was considered sufficient to accept belief in
one God and to adopt a minimum of other commandments, such as the Sabbath, the dietary
laws and basic ethical requirements. Even though such individuals were not converts,
strictly speaking, they were encouraged by Jewish leaders and evidently expected to share
in the favor of God as much as Jews by birth (see for example, G.F. Moore, Judaism II,
325; G. Bornkamm, Paul 10; K.G. Kuhn, TDNT VI, 731).
However, even the "God-fearers" who were not forced to
experience removal of the foreskin still had to observe the Sabbath, the second major
tenet of Judaism. This poses a rather obvious but crucial question: if
circumcisionwhich was not a universal requirement for Gentiles anywayis such a
major issue in the New Testament, why is the Sabbath not even an issue of controversy?
We have to remember that we are not dealing with a minor point. On
an unimportant issue, the silence of the New Testament might be purely accidental. But we
are dealing with one of the two major pillars of the Jewish religion at the time.
It hardly needs pointing out, of course, that circumcision was an
important issue in the early years of the apostolic Church. So long as the only new
converts were Jews, no problem arose. But it was not long before the conversion of
Cornelius (Acts 10-11). God clearly gave His Spirit without requiring circumcision. When
Peter was called into question about it, his answer seemed to have quieted any objections.
However, it was not completely settled, because it came up again,
requiring the council of Acts 15. Even then circumcision must have been a problem, because
Paul continues to mention it. Those troubling the Galatians were evidently teaching
circumcision, so that Paul in exasperation, sarcastically wishes they would slip and
castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12). He says many times that neither circumcision nor
uncircumcisionphysicallyis of any spiritual consequence (1 Cor. 7:19; Gal.
5:6). It is spiritual circumcision of the heartthat counts (Rom. 2:29 ff).
This "pillar" of Judaism was so important that it received
considerable attention throughout the New Testament. Despite precedents in conversion
without circumcision, the subject was debated quite vigorously in the early Church. Yet
the other pillarthe Sabbathdoes not receive anywhere near comparable
treatment. A silence at this point seems hardly accidental. Considering the historical
situation, silence undoubtedly means that the Sabbath was a nonissuenever challenged
or questioned The required conclusion must therefore be that Sabbath observance was both
taught and obeyed by the early Church.
Sabbath observance was so important in the Jewish religion that there
are statements in Talmudic literature to the effect that Sabbath observance is the
equivalent of the Abrahamic Covenant, and that the law of the Sabbath was said to be equal
to all the other laws and commandments in the Torah! (Mekhilta 63; Pesikta Rabbti 23;
Palestinian Talmud Berachot 3; Nedarim 38; Exodus Rabba 25.) Although these are
post-first century texts, they illustrate what is also clear from the earliest records:
The acknowledged importance of the Sabbath to Judaism is highly relevant for achieving an
accurate understanding of New Testament teaching regarding Sabbath observance for the
The enormous importance of the Sabbath in first century Judaism is
powerful corroboratory evidence that neither Jesus nor any of His apostles following, ever
"did away" with Sabbath observance on the day God created for rest and worship.
The few scriptures (primarily in Paul's writings) often quoted in an attempt to end the
obligation of Christians to keep the Sabbath, pale by comparison with the overwhelming
significance of the Sabbath. If the apostles had dared to eliminate the Sabbath, surely a
gargantuan conflict would have exploded into the New Testament record. Compare the major
controversy in the New Testament Church over circumcision (e.g., Acts 15), which was
declared to be unnecessary or optional for Christians, with the relatively minor
controversy over how a Christian should observe the Sabbath (in contradistinction
to the "'customary" rigorous regulations of common Jewish law).
Since the Sabbath was considered by the Jews to be so importantas
important as all the rest of the law put together in some circles (see above)if Jesus
and His apostles had taught and practiced the total abrogation of the Sabbath commandment
as is often claimed, then the religious controversy and disputations should perforce have
filled the gospels, the book of Acts and all the epistles. There is no such enormous
controversy in the New Testament records, and therefore we can only conclude that the
Sabbath was not abrogated!
This would also explain why we do not find repeated reaffirmations
of the Sabbath as a command of God. It is mentioned, of course (as already shown), but
everybody in the New Testament world already knew about or believed in the importance of
the Sabbath. There was not the slightest doubt or uncertainty. To have emphasized
Sabbath-keeping in the New Testament would have been like the proverbial "carrying
coals to Newcastle" or "taking, ice to the Eskimos in winter. " The issue
that Jesus (and later the apostles) addressed was not whether to observe the
Sabbathit had always been revered as the fourth of the Ten Commandmentsbut
rather how to observe the Sabbath in the light of the restrictive concepts of the
Commonly available historical scholarship testifies to the fact that
Christians kept the Sabbath even after New Testament times. Eusebius reports that even the
liberal wing of the Jewish Christians "shared in the impiety of the former class
(radical wing], in that they were equally zealous to insist on the literal observance of
the law." S. Bacchiocchi writes that around 80-90 A.D. "the Rabbinical
authorities reconstituted at Jamnia [after the fall of Jerusalem] introduced a test, in
the form of a curse to be pronounced in the famous daily prayer Shemoneh Esreh by
any participant in the synagogue service, against the Christians. The fact that a test had
to be introduced to detect the presence of Christians in the synagogue would seem to
indicate, as J. Parkes observes, that Judeo-Christians still frequent the synagogue. It
would therefore appear that no radical break with Judaism took place until the year 135
It was after 135 A.D., when the Romans crushed the Bar Kokhba revolt
and forbade the traditional observance of many Jewish laws including the Sabbath, that the
new Gentile leaders of the Jerusalem Church probably began to adopt the weekly Sunday
observance, thereby establishing Sunday as their day of worship. This became necessary in
order to eliminate any possible association with Judaismand any resultant
suspicionin the eyes of the Roman overlords.
Nevertheless, the observance of the Sabbath was such a strong tradition
that it continued alongside Sunday for several centuries even in large portions of
Catholic Christianity. For example, the so-called Apostolic Constitutions (about
375-400) exhort the faithful to assemble "on the Sabbath day and . . . the Lord's
day" (2.59. 1). Both days are to be feasts (7.23.2); Christian slaves are to be
allowed to rest on both of them (8.33. 1). Even though Sunday is given a slightly higher
value, the Sabbath is to be celebrated as the memorial of Creation and a time for
One of the great Catholic theologians of east, Gregory of Nyssa (about
335-394), writes, "With what face will you dare to behold the Lord's day if you have
despised the Sabbath? . . . For they are sister days" (De Castig 2). Even the noted
Alexandrian theologian Oricren, the source of so much of later Catholic theology, wrote in
his Hom. in Num. 23.4:
"Leaving on one side, therefore, the Jewish observances of the
Sabbath, let us see of what kind the observance of the Sabbath ought to be for the
Christian. On the Sabbath no worldly affairs ought to be undertaken. If, therefore, you
abstain from all secular works, and do nothing worldly, but employ yourself in spiritual
works, and come to church and give ear to the Scripture lections and to sermons,.... this
is the observance of the Sabbath for the Christian."
Even as late as the 5th century, we find the Sabbath still being
remembered in Catholic Christianity, with the notable exceptions of Rome and Alexandria.
The church historian, Socrates, writing about 440, states:
"Almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred
mysteries on the Sabbath of every week, yet the Christians at Alexandria and at Rome, on
account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this" (5.22).
His contemporary Sozomen similarly tells us, "The people of
Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as the
first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria"
Sabbath Analogy of God's Plan
The Sabbath day has two great overall purposes according to
the Bible: 1) It looks back as a witness to the physical creation; 2) it looks forward as
a shadow to the spiritual rest )and creation. (A third purpose can be listed as well: the
Sabbath was to be remembrance of the God who brought Israel out of Egypt, Deut. 5:15.) God
does things in type and antitype, in "shadow" and in "substance."
When God created the earth in six days and then rested on the
seventh, this completed the physical creation. There is no more physical creation going
on. The works are finished as Genesis 2:2-3 and Hebrews 4:3 attest. So the Sabbath day
looks back to that Creation, the week of the physical creation (Ex. 20: 11; 31:17). It is
then a memorial, which helps us to remember the Creator who made everything. It keeps Him
fully in mind every week.
But God also has a great spiritual plana spiritual
creationwhich is now in progress (2 Cor. 5:17). There is a new Creation, and the
Sabbath also looks forward to that. Hebrews 4:1-11 refers to a rest for God's
people. It is a yet future rest that we are to strive to enterthe ultimate
rest in the Kingdom of God. The seven-day week (v.4) is a picture of this spiritual week
God has instituted. God restedso man shall too. Therefore, the Sabbath day each week
also, looks forward to that future restwhen the whole earth shall be at
restwhen all shall be taught the way of God. Hebrews 4 shows this clearly and verse
9 is particularly relevant. It says, "There remaineth therefore a rest
[sabbatismos"sabbatizing"I to the people of God." So, because of
the future rest (katapausis) spiritual Israel is to enter, there remains for us a sabbatismos
or " sabbatizing. " This means that we will keep that future Sabbath of
millennial rest as we now keep the weekly Sabbath to look forward to it.
In other words, the Sabbath is both a memorial and a shadow. It
is a memorial of Creation and a shadow of the coming future rest of God's people following
the return of Jesus Christ. The Sabbath did not originate with the law of' Moses or with
the Sinaitic covenant with physical Israelso it does not pass with that covenant;
rather it originated with Creation and looks back as a memorial to it. The Sabbath is also
a shadow, looking forward to the yet future time of the Millennium. A shadow
remains as long as the substance is still future. So it remainslooking
forward to that time. And when that time comes, the Sabbath shall still be kept (Isaiah
66:23) although no longer as a shadow but as a memorial to the then contemporary reality
of Christ's millennial rule.
It was a widespread belief in both intertestamental Judaism and the
early Church that the seven days of Creation were an analogy of God's plan for man. This
belief held that the first six days represent the entirety of human history in which man
is allowed to go his own way under the sway of Satan the devil, and the seventh day on
which God rested represents the millennial rest when God Himself sets up His own rule and
Kingdom over the earth. Such a Kingdom is described in a number of Old Testament passages
(e.g. Isaiah 2:2-4; 11; Mic. 4:1-8).
Moreover, two New Testament passages refer explicitly to this future
Kingdom. Revelation 20:1-10 describes a time when Jesus Christ Himself returns to the
earth and has Satan bound. The righteous will rule. The time of this rule is specifically
described as "a thousand years" (vv.4,6). As we have seen, Hebrews 3:7-14; 11
draws a lengthy analogy with the Sabbath rest which physical Israel had never entered
into. Christians have a chance to enter into this rest if they do not harden their hearts
as the Israelites did. In Hebrews 4:9 this eschatological rest is explicitly connected
with the seventh-day Sabbath rest.
Sabbath in the Millennium
As already mentioned, the weekly Sabbath day was taken as a
sign of a millennial "Sabbath" of one thousand years in which God (Jesus Christ)
would rule directly over the whole earth. The Kingdom of God was already awaited by the
Old Testament prophets. Some of the descriptions of it include references to worship on
the weekly and annual Sabbaths. For example, Isaiah 66:10 ff describes the restoration of
Jerusalem as the capital of the world and the rule of God, over all nations. The righteous
are vindicated and rebellions punished. Verse 23 states "From one new moon to
another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith
the Lord." Sabbath worship is envisioned for all peoples, not just for Israelites.
(The new moon was often treated as a semi-holiday because of its importance for
calendrical purposes. However, it is nowhere explicitly designated a holy day. See further
discussion under "Annual Holy Days.")
Ezekiel 40-48 describes Israel and the future Temple in prophetic
vision. Regular observance of the weekly Sabbath and other holy days shall be established
alongside a reinstituted priesthood and temple ritual. The Passover and Feast of
Tabernacles are discussed in 45:21-25. The weekly Sabbath is mentioned in 44:24; 45:17;
46:1,3,4,12. Then, as now, there shall be physical human beings with the same basic needs
that human beings have always had. The physical and spiritual needs for the Sabbath then
shall be the same as they are now and as they have been in the past.
Principles for Observing the Sabbath
Genesis 2:3 reveals that God blessed the seventh day and
sanctified itset it apart as a holy daybecause He rested from all His work.
God did not rest because He was tired (cf Isaiah 40:28); He rested because He was creating
something new by the very act of His resting. He was putting His holy presence into the
seventh day of the week and setting the precedent for what all mankind should later do.
The Sabbath in the Sinaitic covenant and in later administrations was
often hedged about with very strict legal ordinances about what could or could not be done
on that day. These regulations had the purpose of teaching respect for the day and helping
lead to the proper understanding of the day and its intent. Jesus looked beyond these
legalistic ordinances surrounding the day and pointed to the true purpose of the day.
The Sabbath is a definite day, the seventh day of the week, established
by God at creation. To alter its observance to one dayjust any dayin seven
makes it lose its original meaning. Of course, modern man is aware of geographical
locations in which the sun does not set below the horizon every 24 hours. The polar
regions in summer are one example; outer space is another. Yet, just as individuals in
such locations do not lose track of time in relation to the rest of the world, the basic
time of the seventh day of the week on earth can still be known. Despite lack of a clear
time of sunset, an appropriate demarcation of the Sabbath day can still be determined.
That period of
time defined broadly as "evening and morning" was blessed and hallowed. To
hallow or sanctify is to make holy or set apart for holy use. When
originally defined, the days of creation week were defined only in the broad
terms of "evening" [the 12-hour night/dark portion of a 24-hour period] and
"morning" [the 12-hour day/light portion of a 24-hour period]. It is the
individual's responsibility, considering the local geographic configuration
or latitude, to determine as best he is able, a full 24-hour cycle of time.
(From the commencement of the night, following an evening sunset until the
end of the next evening sunset, 24-hours will elapse). Scandinavians
certainly have more need of a broader meaning of the "evening and morning"
cycle than do people who live in the tropics.
Christians must keep the day in the spirit. And a true spiritual
understanding of the meaning and purpose of the Sabbath obviates the need for detailed
regulations; indeed, detailed regulations cannot substitute for a proper spiritual
understanding. To attempt to draw detailed lines of Sabbath do's and don'ts would be of
little use and would only confuse those seeking to gain understanding of the real intent
of the Sabbath, which must come from the Spirit of God. Yet some guidelines are necessaryespecially
for the new convert. Therefore, a rather broad discussion is given here as a means of
pointing to a proper understanding of the day.
The Sabbath is a special day, a holy day, a day specifically
devoted to God and to spiritual matters. It is not a day for regular business (Isaiah 58:13)
but a time to turn from the cares and concerns of the mundane life to the things of God.
It is a day in which to rejoice, to enjoy, to rest and have time for God and for one's
family. The concept of rest does not mean inactivity though, since spiritual activity is
quite important. Physical activity per se is not prohibited since certain kinds may
be conductive to a better observance of the day (Matthew 12:1).
Jesus' example of doing good on the Sabbath is a farther indication
that physical activity as such is not prohibited (e.g. Matthew 12:9-13; John. 9:1-14). Doing
good by helping others is very much in keeping with the intent of the Sabbath. Relieving
the sufferings or taking care of the immediate needs of others is at the heart of
Christian love. Since the purpose of the Sabbath is to lead to a more profound
understanding of this godly love, activity which promotes this is certainly in harmony
with the Sabbath command.
On the other hand, whatever does not contribute to a proper use of the
Sabbath is out of keeping with it. Doing one's normal business, earning a living, becoming
burdened with the mundane cares of daily life, following purely physical pursuits to the
exclusion of spiritual ones, or regularly participating in activities which prevent the
needed rest of mind and body, are contrary to the purpose of the Sabbath. These all defeat
its very intentthe reason why it was given to manbecause they do not generate
the benefits that the Sabbath was created to give.
It is not the responsibility of the Church to create an encyclopedic
handbook for Sabbath observance. The Church teaches the broad principles and the
members apply them in situations as they arise. The Church cannot legislate on every last
situation that may be encountered. Each member must be educated and encouraged to make personal
value judgments according to his own character and conscience within the general
guidelines provided by the Church.
It is the duty of the ministry of the Church to teach the profound
spiritual meaning of the seventh day from a biblical perspective. The ministry must
teach both what the letter of the law says and what the spirit of the
Sabbath law is.
The most important declaration regarding Sabbath Observance was Jesus'
statement that "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" (Mark
2:27). God created the Sabbath day to serve mannot vice versa. Man was not intended
to be enslaved to a period of time. Sabbath observance should not be allowed to
become an end in itself. Rather, the day is to serve and help those who observe it.
The Sabbath was created, as Christ pointed out, for the service of mankind. It was
the day upon which God "rested"that is, ceased from His labors of
creation"and was refreshed" (Ex. 31:17). The example is clear: God rested,
therefore man also should rest from his weekly labors. When man observes the Sabbath day,
he is imitating his Creator and commemorating the creation itself.
The Israelites were instructed to cease from their usual food-gathering
labors on the seventh day as God Himself had set the example (Ex. 16:29-30). The day was
to be a time of "solemn rest, a holy Sabbath" (verse 23).
In the giving of the Decalogue at Sinai, the command concerning the
Sabbath became the "fourth commandment." The Israelites were instructed to keep
the seventh day holy:
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt
thou labor, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God:
in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor
thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six
days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the
seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it" (Ex.
20:8-11, emphasis ours).
The theocracy of Israel was primarily an agrarian society.
"Work" most often meant farm labor of one kind or another. That is why the
commandment included cattle or oxen (cf. Deut. 5:14). In context, it is clear that labor
which involved planting, plowing and harvesting is what was being forbidden on the seventh
day (cf. Ex. 34:21). There is a parallel between this kind of labor and the work of
God at Creationhence the discussion of Creation in Exodus 20:11.
As the community of Israel developed sophistication within the context
of a national theocracy, the implications of the fourth commandment extended into other
areas. In the special "Sabbath covenant" section (Ex. 31:12-17), the command to
rest applied to "any work" (v. 14). In short, the Sabbath is a day when God's
people cease from their usual workday labors as did God. The fact that we are
imitating God's example when we do so shows our special relationship with Godit
shows that we are "His people."
Isaiah 58 sheds more light on the meaning of the Sabbath day in Israel:
"If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your
pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord
honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure; or
talking idly; then you shall take: delight in the Lord" (Isaiah 58:13-14).
In short, the Sabbath is God's day. It is a day devoted to God and
to godly activities. It is holy. It is hallowed. It is a day to be honored. It is a
time to "delight in the Lord" as opposed to one's own mundane business affairs.
It should be carefully noted that the term "seeking your own pleasure"
(RSV"finding thine own pleasure," KJV) in Isaiah 58:13 does not, in the
Hebrew, have reference to personal enjoyment. The word "pleasure" is khephets
in Hebrew. In the Jewish Publication Society translation of 1917, it is rendered
"thine own business." The New English Bible makes the meaning clearer
than either the King James Version or the Revised Standard Version:
"If you cease to tread the Sabbath underfoot, and keep my holy day
free from your own affairs, if you call the Sabbath a day of joy . . . if you honor
it by not plying your trade, not seeking your own interest or attending to your
This translation shows the true intention of the words "your own
pleasure." The Hebrew term rendered "pleasure" is often translated
"desire" or "purpose" in other passages (e.g.1 King 5:8-10; Eccles.
3:1,17; etc.). The Jewish translation speaks of "pursuing their own business"
and "thy wonted ways." The Hebrew khephets is not addressing the question
of pleasurable activities that are illegal on the seventh day. If pleasure were not
present, how could the day possible be a delight?
This scriptureIsaiah 58:13has been erroneously applied by
some to such activities as television-viewing, swimming, listening to music, marital
relations and even reading the weekly comics in the newspaper. Of course, any of these
activities could violate the spirit of the Sabbath day if they were to be abused or
overdone. Of and by themselves they are not wrong. What is wrong is any activity
which interferes with or detracts from the joy, rest and spiritual intention of the day.
If any activity works against the spirit of the Sabbath, it is wrong, no matter
what it is.
The main concern of most scriptures pertaining to the Sabbath is that one
should not pursue his usual business or work activities on that day. One should have
more of God and less of himself in his thoughts on the Sabbath. It is a day to honor
God, to remember His creation, and to rest. Obviously then, it should not be a
day of violent physical activity of any kindwork or play. It is a day of
restfulness. It is a time to unwind and to draw close to God. One's own thoughts of
business, money-making, buying and selling, or one's job, should be minimized if not
forgotten. The cares of the week are left behind. It is a day to "take it easy"
and to worship God. This is the spirit of the day.
This background should help put things in perspective. Jesus provided
additional insight into the intention of the when He said, " it is lawful to do,
good on the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:12). He was speaking of such things as healing, or
pulling a stranded animal out of a ditch or similar activities. Jesus was expounding the spirit
of the day in these examples. By the ox in the ditch" example (Luke 14:5), He
showed that it is not that all physical activity is wrong on the Sabbathbut that the
kind of physical activity which is involved in earning a living or in doing business is.
Pulling an ox out of a ditch can involve considerable expenditure of physical effort, yet
it is not wrong because it is "doing good." It is a matter of capturing the
spirit of the law and ordering one's priorities aright. If we can do good for a domestic
animal, how much more for a human being who is of infinitely more value (Matthew 1-2:9-13)?
The sect of the Pharisees had missed the point of the Sabbath law. They
thought that virtually any physical effort, except for a very limited amount, was wrong.
Christ showed that what is important is not the effort, but the kind of effort and
the direction of that effort. Doing goodserving people who are in dire
needis not wrong on the Sabbath day. Serving one's own business interests is wrong.
What about doing one's own business on the Sabbath if that business is "doing
good"in the health services, for example? Obviously, emergencies and
responsibility for human welfare follow Jesus own examples regarding doing good on
the Sabbath. Yet there can be a fine line between such responsibilities and the regular
full-time work of the normal week. One who truly desires to keep God's Sabbath will not
seek an excuse to regularly engage in work on the Sabbath, yet will be instantly ready to
aid fellow human beings who are in need of help.
With these basic guidelines in mind, it should be evident that the
individual must evaluate each situation that confronts him as it arises. He or she must
answer several basic questions: will this activity violate the spirit and intent of
the Sabbath day? Can I do it in faith? If there is doubt in the person's mind, if the
activity contemplated is questionable, it is probably best to avoid it (Rom. 14:23). If it
would offend his conscienceor that of others in the Churchhe should avoid the
activity. Paul said "if food is a cause of my brother's falling, I will never eat
meat, lest I cause my brother to fall" (1 Cor. 8:13).
These guidelines are what the Church provides to its members as the basis
for their personal decision making. It is not the duty of the ministry to spell out
and rule on every last kind of activity in the human realm! It is in its spiritual
significance. It is the individual's responsibility to interpret that teaching in the
light of his or her own situation.
By way of clarification, the following examples may be instructive:
It is obviously out of step with the spirit of the Sabbath day to
participate in violent physical sports activities. Can one "keep the Sabbath
holy" while charging down a football field or a basketball court? In competitive
sports, one must go all out to the point of exhaustion to win. The Sabbath is a day of rest.
The Sabbath would not be a day to dig up the garden, or plow or
harvest in a major way. But there is nothing wrong with watering the lawn or pulling up a
few carrots or breaking of stalks of celery for a fresh salad.
One should not do the entire week's shopping on a Saturday; one should
plan ahead. But if the baby needs milk, and you are out of it, there is nothing wrong with
picking up a quart or two. There is a principle here.
As a rule, Christians should avoid getting into situations where
Sabbath observance becomes difficult. As we have always said it is best to remain far from
the edge of the cliff. Why trouble your conscience? This is especially true concerning
business matters. Partnerships with non-Church members can be difficult in this respect.
One has to remember that, for a Christian, there is a balance between the proper keeping
of the Sabbath for himself and his Christian duty to treat his neighbor with the utmost
respect and outgoing concern. Herein lies the ever-present danger of the two extremes: 1)
a Christian can delude himself into not helping his family or his fellow man because of
his self-righteous desire to "perfectly" keep the Sabbath holy; 2) the same
Christian can delude himself just as convincingly into not keeping the Sabbath because he
has persuaded himself that others "need" him to work.
There is no simple solution to this dilemma: no formula to apply, or
panacea to discover. God designed our minds and His law so that we would have to confront
difficult and unique situations throughout our Christian lives. How we handle each of
these situations shall determine the quality of the character we are building; that is
what building character is all about.
In all this, we should remember that Israel was a self contained,
controllable, theocratic community. In today's world, on the other hand, Christians cannot
control the circumstances of their environments except to a very limited extent. We are
sent into the world (John. 17:18). We must coexist with a world that, for the most part,
does not obey God. Our situation is quite different from that of ancient Israel.
The Church therefore advises its members to use vision and foresight in
planning business ventures that could present problems in the future. They are encouraged
to avoid awkward and difficult situations. Oftentimes we are presented with difficult
choices. In the developing nations, for example, certain activities on the Sabbath are
compulsory by law. Those failing to comply can be shot or imprisoned! If a man is to be
imprisoned and taken from his family who rely upon him to support and provide for them, it
is far better that he perform a public service on the Sabbath (e.g. garbage disposal) if
the law requires it, than to allow this to happen. God places heavy emphasis in the New
Testament on a man's responsibility to provide for his own family. He who fails to do so
is considered to be "worse than an infidel" (I Tim. 5:8).
In certain parts of Europe, it is possible to lose custody of
ones children if one does not send them to school on the Sabbath. If this were to
happen, parents would have no control over their children, whatsoever. Moreover, they
would still end up going to school on the Sabbath. It is better to allow them to
attend school that half-day than to lose them altogether! Of course, it is not ideal, but
it is the best thing to do under the circumstances.
The Sabbath is a means of honoring and worshipping God. We can honor
and worship Him in the privacy of our homes by having the time to draw closer to Him. This
can be accomplished by rest, prayer, reflection (meditation) on His ways and by reading
His handbook of lifethe Bible.
We should also more formally show honor and worship to God by
assembling with His true Church on His Sabbath. The Sabbath is called a "holy
convocation" (Lev. 23:3). The book of Hebrews states that God's Church must not
neglect "to meet together" (Heb. 10:25). J. B. Phillips translates this verse:
"And let us not hold aloof from our church meetings. "
The Sabbath demonstrates one's recognition of God as Creator, both past
and future, and as Lord of our lives. If we do not set aside the Sabbath daynot just
any day of the week, but the day specifically ordained, sanctified and commanded by God
and His Wordperhaps it is because of a disinclination or "inability" to
serve Him and put Him first. One's respect for the Sabbath is one means (among many) of
showing one's true attitude toward God and His rulership.
Keeping the Sabbath in its full spiritual intent is a means of
developing and demonstrating godly love. It is also a solemn command from God, who wants
only the best for His creation. Physically and mentally, the Sabbath renews the body to do
more in six days than could be done in seven without such rest. Spiritually, it shows
respect and love toward God. God's Sabbath is surely "for men" (Mark 2:27).
This publication is intended to be
used as a personal study tool. Please know it is not wise to take any man's word
for anything, so prove all things for yourself from the pages of your own Bible.
The Garner Ted Armstrong Evangelistic Association
P.O. Box 747
Flint, TX 75762
Phone: (903) 561-7070 • Fax: (903) 561-4141
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