Sabbath

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Sunday or Saturday?

Nothing in the New Testament requires that Christians meet on Sunday rather than Saturday. According to John Calvin in 'Instruction in Faith' the change from Saturday to Sunday was made to avoid legalism by Jewish Christians. To quote Calvin, "As our human weakness does not allow such assemblies to meet every day, the day observed by the Jews has been taken away (as a good device for eliminating superstition) and another day has been destined to this use. This was necessary for securing order and peace in the Church."[1] However, such a practice is not based upon any explicit New Testament teaching.

Purpose of the Sabbath: Protecting the Poor

Setting aside the Sabbath was originally done to ensure a day of rest for the poor, that they would not be overworked. It was specifically intended to stop employers from mistreating the poor, and allowing a day of rest to focus on God.

This is consistent with other Biblical commandments requiring that farmers leave a portion of their harvests for the poor including widows, orphans, and immigrants (Lev. 19:9-10), feed said poor every three years (Deut. 14:28-29), and not charge the poor interest (Ex. 22:25).

Exodus 20:10 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:
11 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.

Leviticus 23:3 Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the LORD in all your dwellings.

The Sabbath, or seventh day, was used also for years, to free the poor from their debts every 7th and 49th year, and to let the land itself rest (what is called crop rotation) with any food produced available to the poor.

Leviticus 25:8 And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years.
9 Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubile to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land.
10 And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.

Leviticus 25:2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD.
3 Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof;
4 But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the LORD: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.
5 That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land.
6 And the sabbath of the land shall be meat for you; for thee, and for thy servant, and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant, and for thy stranger that sojourneth with thee,
7 And for thy cattle, and for the beast that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be meat.

A New Covenant

However, Israel did not abide by God's just commandments, so God said He would bring in a new Covenant, or agreement, with the nation of Israel.

Jeremiah 31:31 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Hebrews 8:6 ¶ But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.
8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
9 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

For this reason, Old Testament restrictions under the Old Covenant were largely replaced with spiritual commandments that fulfilled the original intent of the Law.

Hebrews 10:1 ¶ For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.

Hebrews 9:1 ¶ Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.

Hebrews 9:9 Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience;
10 Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.
11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;
12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.

As such, the New Covenant or New Testament does not do away with the Old Testament Law, it fulfills it. (Matthew 5:17-18; Romans 3:31)

Jesus' Teachings About the Sabbath

Jesus in the New Testament was attacked by the Pharisees, who focused on the strict wording of the Old Testament laws while ignoring the context and purpose for which they were given. The Pharisees attacked Jesus over:

  • Healing sick people on the Sabbath day. (Mt. 12:9-13; Mk. 3:1-6; Lk. 14:1-6; John 5:8-17)
  • Freeing those possessed by demons on the Sabbath day. (Lk. 13:10-17)
  • Allowing His disciples to harvest food on the Sabbath day so they wouldn't go hungry. (Mt. 12:1-8)

Jesus responded by pointing out that David, when he and his soldiers were hungry, ate the shewbread reserved for the priests, and allowed his soldiers to do so as well. (Mt. 12:2) Jesus also pointed out that the priests in the temple were themselves ignoring the Sabbath and were not held accountable for centuries. (Mt. 12:5) The Pharisees would rescue one of their livestock which fell in a hole on the Sabbath, yet they condemned Him for healing a woman on the Sabbath who had been demon-possessed for 18 years. People should be considered more valuable than animals, and if it is alright to help an animal on the Sabbath, it should be alright to help a person as well. (Lk. 13:16)

As Jesus pointed out, "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." (Mk. 2:27) It was intended to protect the poor for their benefit, not burden them with onerous regulations as the Pharisees were using it to do. Jesus also pointed out that God the Father does not stop working on the Sabbath (meaning that otherwise all Creation would probably stop functioning every Sabbath otherwise) so He works as well. (Jn. 5:18) He further observed that the Pharisees practiced circumcision on the Sabbath, a medical procedure, so healing others should be permissible on the Sabbath. (Jn. 7:23) Ultimately, Jesus' retort essentially came down to "I made the Sabbath in the first place. I can decide how it's applied." (Mt. 12:8; Mk. 2:28;

Matthew 12:3 But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him;
4 How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?
5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?
6 But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.
7 But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.
8 For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.
9 And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue:
10 And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.
11 And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?
12 How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.
13 Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.

Mark 2:24 And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful?
25 And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him?
26 How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him?
27 And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath:
28 Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.

John 5:16 And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.
17 ¶ But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.

Luke 13:10 ¶ And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.
11 And, behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself.
12 And when Jesus saw her, he called her to him, and said unto her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.
13 And he laid his hands on her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.
14 And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the sabbath day, and said unto the people, There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.
15 The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering?
16 And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?
17 And when he had said these things, all his adversaries were ashamed: and all the people rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by him.

Mark 3:1 ¶ And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand.
2 And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him.
3 And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth.
4 And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace.
5 And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.
6 And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.

John 7:22 Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man.
23 If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?

Overlooked Context

First of all, the commandment was intended for the good of the poor. Secondly, it was the "sabbath of the Lord." Jesus, as the Old Testament Angel of the Lord who gave such commandments to the Israelites in the first place, had every right to declare Himself "Lord of the Sabbath day."

Exodus 20:8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
10 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:
11 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.

The New Testament Teaching

The New Testament discourages legalistic regulation of certain days (including the Sabbath day). Ultimately we should be focusing on and worshiping God every day, not just the Sabbath day. What ultimately matters is that the poor are resting at least one day a week, regardless of which day it is; that is the underlying principle; and that we are spending at least one day a week to focus on God. Furthermore, it is alright to do good on the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath was intended to protect the poor from overwork, not create onerous regulations that govern what everyone can do on a certain day of the week (as the Pharisees viewed it). The Old Testament Covenant, including its rules on the Sabbath, was not kept properly by the Israelites for thousands of years, which is why Jesus brought in the New Covenant which emphasizes the underlying spiritual principles the Sabbath was intended for; protecting and helping mankind while focusing on God.

The New Testament calls us to a higher view of the Sabbath, where we are to worship God constantly, not just one day a week, doing everything for God's glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). We are called to constantly focus on the good of others, as the Sabbath was intended for.

Colossians 2:16 ¶ Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
17 Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.

Romans 14:2 For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.
3 Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
4 Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.
5 One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
6 He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.

1 Corinthians 10:31 Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.

Conclusion

American Atheists want to focus on the Sabbath rules under the Old Covenant, not the New Covenant which Christians are under; ignoring the context of the Sabbath for which it was given, as the Israelite Pharisees did. In doing so, they ignore the principles emphasized in the New Testament by Jesus about the Sabbath, that it was intended primarily for the good of people, not as a burden. (Mk. 2:27) What matters is that the Sabbath be used to do good for others. (Mt. 12:12)

Sources

  1. Calvin, J. (1537). "Instruction in Faith." pp. 31-32. Westminster/John Knox Press.