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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Remembering the Sabbath


Let me first apologize for not updating the blog over the past four weeks. For two weeks I was travelling, and upon returning I moved into a new apartment where I do not yet have an internet connection. I hope to get this remedied soon!

We now continue our series on the relevance of the Ten Commandments today with the Fourth Commandment, which reads thus:
“8 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 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. 11 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 20:8-11)
There has been much disagreement within the church about the continuing role of the Sabbath. Adherents to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, like the Jewish religion, continue to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week. They point out that the basis of the Sabbath commandment was not something intrinsic to the Law of Moses (which has been fulfilled by the coming of Christ), but rather pointed back to Creation, and thus remains applicable forever.

Other Christians continue to observe the Sabbath but have changed it from the seventh day of the week to the first day of the week. For these believers, Sunday has become the “Christian Sabbath” because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Mark 16:2; John 20:1). They follow the precedent of the early church in coming together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; Revelation 1:10).

Still other Christians believe that the Sabbath day has passed away as a strict, literal requirement. They believe that the spirit or underlying principle of the Sabbath is to regularly set aside time from the pursuits of daily business and worldly concerns to worship God and fellowship with God and other believers. However, they do not consider themselves bound to set this time aside on a particular day of the week, but rather to prioritize God on every day of the week. Many of these Christians still come together for a worship service on Sunday, if only for reasons of convenience and convention.

This non-literal view of the Sabbath commandment looks to Jesus’ own teachings and practices for support. Jesus infuriated some of the Jewish religious leaders of his day by healing the sick on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:10-12; Luke 13:10-16; John 9:14-16), and allowing his followers to perform certain tasks on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8; John 5:9-16).

By the letter of the law, Jesus did break the Sabbath. He commanded a healed lame man to carry his mat into the city on the Sabbath, which was in direct contravention of the Law which prohibited carrying a burden through the city gates on the Sabbath (Jeremiah 17:21-24). The real purpose of this law, though, was to prevent commerce from taking place in the city on the Sabbath (see Nehemiah 13:15-22). Jesus argued that important tasks such as giving an ox a drink (Luke 13:15), pulling a sheep from a pit (Matthew 12:12) or circumcising a child (John 7:22-23) were allowed on the Sabbath, so “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” He provided a much-needed reform to the legalistic Sabbath practices of the Jewish religious leaders who were enforcing the law to unreasonable extremes. He urged us to keep the Sabbath in perspective: the Sabbath was made for man, and not the other way around (Mark 2:27).

However, Jesus’ novel interpretation of the Sabbath went beyond simply allowing exceptions for good deeds. In the case of his disciples’ picking corn on the Sabbath, his justification was that in Old Testament times, priests had broken the Sabbath in the Temple and been blameless, and that “One greater than the temple is here.” He also pointed out that the Father works continually, and therefore so does he (John 5:17). The key principle here was that “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus’ right to break the Sabbath derived from his divine authority. This gave him the right to set aside Sabbath Day restrictions for himself and his followers, and this is the basis for many Christians to claim today that the Sabbath restrictions are no longer in force.

Ezekiel’s prophecy of the age to come envisions Sabbath Day observance (Ezekiel 46:4), so it would be presumptuous to say that the Sabbath has been done away with. However, it must be noted that the Sabbath was hardly mentioned in the epistles of the New Testament, and even in the Book of Acts it comes up only when the apostles used it as an opportunity to preach to the Jews.

Paul’s only teaching about Sabbath observance is found in Colossians 2:16-17: “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” This shows us that there should be tolerance for different Sabbath practices. It ought to be recognized that the principle of setting aside time at intervals to worship God and build up fellow believers is a good thing to do. The Sabbath commandment is not obsolete, but its observance is in spirit and not only in letter.

I want to wish a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all readers of this blog!