Thursday, December 5, 2013

Should Christians Observe the Sabbath?

Today is the fourth day in our 48th week, reading the Bible through in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Esther 1-3; Rev 1; Psalm 139.

This morning, I received an email from T.B., which says:

Hello Pastor Greg,
I have a question for you regarding worship. Most everyone I know who does attend church does so on Sunday, but there are a few that only go on Saturday. The few that go on Saturday say that this is the day of worship and not Sunday and that we should keep it holy. What is your thought on this please,  I would very much like to know.  Thanx.

T.B., you've asked a great question--one that just so happens to be the topic my Sunday school class covered this past Sunday.  Interestingly enough, today's reading in the book of Revelation touches on this topic as well--so I don't even have to go "off schedule" in order to answer your question today!  (Isn't God cool like that?)  John writes:

I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.  On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet,  which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (Revelation 1:9-11 NIV).”

John uses the expression "the Lord's Day" to refer to Sunday, the first day of the week.  For John, this day was a special, holy day.  On this day, even though he could not go to church and worship with other Christians (he was in exile on Patmos), he set aside time to be "in the Spirit."  Why did he do this?  Why were other believers, since the very beginning of Christianity, worshiping on Sunday rather than on Saturday?  Let's take a look at the history.  First, we have to begin with the first book of the Bible.  Genesis 2:1-3 (NIV) says:

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

Perhaps a better understanding, rather than God resting from His work (because God is all-powerful, God cannot get tired), is that God rested in His work.  In other words, He relaxed and enjoyed everything that He had made, and blessed that day and made it holy.  Since that time, even before religion of any kind existed, the Sabbath was observed.  This English word "Sabbath" comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat, or "day of rest."  In the Ten Commandments, God instituted the Sabbath as a law, rather than simply as an observance.

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-11 NIV).

Since Jewish people count days from sundown to sundown (rather than from midnight to midnight or from sunrise to sunrise), the Sabbath is counted from Friday at sundown to Saturday at dusk.  During this time, observant Jews refrain from work, and focus on God.  

God pronounces a blessing on those who keep the Sabbath, as we see in Isaiah 58:13-14 (NIV):

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath

    and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
    and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
    and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the Lord,
    and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
    and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Sabbath-breaking was considered a serious offense by God and His prophets, though many thought nothing of breaking the Sabbath for the sake of gain.  Nehemiah 13:15-22 (ESV) says:

In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.” As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day.

Jesus was an observant Jew, and as such, He kept the Sabbath on a regular basis.  Luke 4:16 (ESV) says:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.

But though it was Jesus' custom to keep the Sabbath by attending the synagogue and resting, he was also frequently accused of breaking the Sabbath.  He healed on the Sabbath, allowed his disciples to "mill grain" in their hands on the Sabbath, and frequently got in trouble for his unorthodox understanding of the seventh-day rest.  This sounds strange to us, because God instituted the Sabbath, and Jesus (who is God in the flesh) broke the Sabbath on numerous occasions.  Here's one example, from Mark 2:23-28 (ESV):

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.  And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”  And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him:  how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and atethe bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”  And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

 Jesus' detractors accused Him of breaking the Law.  Yet, He defended Himself this way:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-19 ESV)."

So Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath.  In Matthew 11:28 (ESV), Jesus says:

 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 

When Jesus was crucified on Friday afternoon, there was a hurry to make sure that he was buried before the Sabbath began at sundown.  This is why burial preparations were incomplete when He was put in the tomb, and the women had to return after the Sabbath, on Sunday, to finish the job.  

Then he took [Jesus' body] down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid.  It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid.  Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.

On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared.  And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,  but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

(Luke 23:53-56; 24:1-3 ESV)

Because the resurrection took place on Sunday, early Jewish Christians observed Sunday as the Lord's Day.  They continued to worship God in the synagogues on Saturday, and observed the Sabbath rest as well.  Sunday was a work day, so they would gather on Sunday evening after work in order to worship with other believers in the Messiah.  So you might say that the early Messianic Jews observed two days of worship--but the Sabbath was still their day of rest.

The apostle Paul, also an observant Jew, made synagogue attendance his habit.  Acts 18:4 (ESV) says:

...He reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.

Yet, Paul also encouraged believers to gather on Sunday and worship God.  In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 (ESV), Paul writes:

Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

The early church started out as mainly Jewish believers.  Yet, as time progressed, more and more Gentiles came to the faith.  Eventually, Gentiles began to outnumber Jews.  One of the great debates in the early church was whether Gentile believers had to follow Jewish ritual practices.  For example read about the decisions the Jerusalem Council made about circumcision, Jewish sexual ethics, and dietary law--all found in Acts 15.  Only very few Jewish traditions were imposed upon the new Christians--and the Sabbath was not one of those.  So, gentile Christians no longer felt bound to worship in the synagogues on Saturday or to keep the Sabbath rest.  

Exodus 31:12-17 (ESV) sheds some light on the question as to whether gentile Christians need to keep the Sabbath.  I've added bold print to emphasize my point.

And the Lord said to Moses,  “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.  You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death.Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.  Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LordWhoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.  Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.  It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” 

So it's clear that the Sabbath was intended as a law for Israelites, not for all people of all time.  Gentiles are not bound to it.  Still, though, the tension between the Gentile Christians and Judaizing Christians.  In Romans 14:1-6 (ESV), Paul talks about the debate between people who believe that Christians need to keep Jewish dietary and ritual observances, and those who believe that Christ frees us from them, because He is the fulfillment of them.

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.  Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.  The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 

Jewish Christians continued to keep Jewish rituals, but eventually Judaism officially rejected Christianity altogether.  What had been a Jewish sect became its own religion--and with that severed tie, Christian observance of the Jewish Sabbath ended.  From that time on, Sunday was the preferred day to worship God and rest.

One thing should be noted here--even though our day of rest changed from Saturday to Sunday, Christians recognize the need to have one day out of seven designated for relaxation, recreation, and recuperation from the toils of life.  On the Lord's Day, we reflect and rejuvenate.  We gather together and worship.

Many people have asked me, "My work schedule requires me to work on Sunday--am I breaking the Sabbath by working on those days?"  My answer is that you're fine to work on Sunday--as long as you observe one day out of seven, where you can rest from your labor, and where you can focus on God, and hopefully attend a Christian gathering of some kind.  Many churches offer opportunities for worship, besides Sunday morning at 11:00.  You might be able to attend a Sunday night worship service or a Wednesday night Bible study.  Perhaps a group of Christians meets together regularly in somebody's home, and that becomes your regular practice in lieu of Sunday morning.  The point is that Christians need to have a predictable pattern of work and rest/worship.  Otherwise, you'll burn out.  When Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, He meant that it's all our benefit.  When we fail to observe a regular day of rest/worship, we're really cheating ourselves.

It's a strange thing that in the 15th century, the church began using the word "Sabbath" to refer to Sunday.  After fifteen centuries of clear distinction between the Jewish and Christian observances, our terminology once again became muddied.  In fact, the Sabbath has never changed.  The Jewish Sabbath, or "day of rest" has always been on Saturday.  The Bible calls Sunday "the Lord's Day."  If you can, why not keep both?  You could have Saturday as a day of rest, and Sunday to dedicate to church and Christian fellowship, prayer, and study of God's Word.

Throughout the history of the church observance of the Lord's Day has been compulsory in many places.  In Puritan New England, for example, violators were put in the stocks.  I'm certainly glad we don't live under those conditions today!  Still, in the United States, Blue Laws enforce religious standards from state to state, dictating certain kinds of businesses that may or may not open, or products that may or may not be sold on Sundays.  I can remember when Blue Laws were repealed in Virginia, when I was a child--and how upset many conservative Christians were about it.  Still today, hunting is illegal on Sundays in Virginia--and ABC stores are closed on Sundays.  Personally, I believe that Blue Laws are a violation of the separation of church and state, and would like to see them all repealed.  If I would be offended at having Muslim laws imposed on me, for example, why would I want to impose my religion's observances on others?

Colossians 2:16-17 (ESV) says that observance of the Sabbath should be a matter of conscience, and not something to be forced.  In fact, Paul says that you should

...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.

The problem is that just as early Christians were divided on the issue of Sabbath-keeping and other Jewish rituals, once again there is a divide that has been created by the Seventh Day Adventists.  That denomination that emerged out of the Millerite movement in the mid 1800s now claims about 17.2 million followers today.  Seventh Day Adventists insist that all other Christians who worship on Sunday instead of Saturday are Sabbath-breakers.  They also recommend vegetarianism and adhere to the Jewish dietary laws found in Deuteronomy 11.  

The whole book of Galatians was written because of the controversy between Gentile Christians and Judaizers, who believed that true believers, whether Jewish or not, had to follow the Jewish law.  Paul does not mince words when he says, "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you (Galatians 3:1)?"  With even stonger words, he writes:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—  so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:10-14 ESV).

 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days and months and seasons and years!  I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (Gal 4:1-11 ESV).

Paul is terribly upset about those who submit to the old Jewish laws, even though they have been set free by Christ.  He is even more upset at those people who insist on forcing those Jewish practices on other people.  In the following verses, Paul is talking about one Jewish practice, circumcision.  However, the conversation is larger than that one ritual.  It really applies to all Jewish laws, like the dietary requirements and the Sabbath.  In no unclear terms, Paul advocates for freedom from these things.

 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.  For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?  This persuasion is not from him who calls you.  A little leaven leavens the whole lump.  I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.  But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.  I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another (Galatians 5:1-15 ESV).

When we think we're bound by ritualistic laws, we submit to a yoke of slavery.  Jesus came to set us free.  His law is very simple.  In Galatians 5, Paul says it's, "Love your neighbor as yourself."  Paul is quoting the words of Jesus in Mark 12:28-34a:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”  Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”  And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him.  And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” 

So...after all that...this morning, I'm looking at the weather report.

This coming weekend, Winter Storm Cleon is expected to impact the region from Texas to Ohio.  In my neck of the woods, we're talking about whether we'll have to cancel church services on Sunday morning due to weather.  If we do, then you can be sure that other congregations will have to do the same thing, because of ice or snow.  Probably Seventh Day Adventists and synagogues will consider shutting down, with the weekend weather.  So the question is--will we all be Sabbath breakers?

Really--I think God is bigger than that.  I really do.

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