From Sabbath to the Lord’s Day
The Sabbath command is found in Exodus 20:8 as the 4th of the Ten Commandments. Its importance to Israel was verified by the penalty for breaking it—death. It is sometimes called the creation ordinance because the reason used in Ex. 20:11 is that God made the creation in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Therefore, the 7th day is holy, and they should not do any work, them, their family, animals, or servants on that day. It is a day dedicated to the Lord as to our worship and focus, but also it is a day of rest from our labors. This law and tradition was unique to Israel. Only the ancient Hebrew literature speaks definitely about a seven day week and a Sabbath.
In Egypt they had operated under a 10 day week. It appears that Moses was teaching the people the Sabbath a short time before the Law was given in Ex.20 because the first mention of Sabbath is in Ex.16:22-30 as a day the Lord provided for them to rest. The penalty for breaking it is given in Ex.31:12-17 where God calls the Sabbath a sign that He is setting Israel apart as a nation. This passage also seems to limit this practice to the nation of Israel—only “the sons of Israel shall observe the Sabbath as a perpetual covenant”.
Over the succeeding years until the time of Christ much tradition was developed about the prohibitions on the Sabbath as to what you could and could not do. Nevertheless, in the giving of the Law only one prohibition is mentioned, “you shall not do any work”. The spirit of the law is to keep the day holy, not like any other work day; a day to relieve the people of Israel of their occupational work so they could worship God and refresh their bodies.
The Sabbath as a sign of God’s covenant with Israel was not just a weekly celebration, but was also commanded as a year of rest for the land every 7th year (Lev.25:1-13). Every 7th year there was to be no planting, for the land was to lay fallow; and every 7th Sabbatical year was to be a special Sabbatical year called the year of Jubilee. On this 50th year, the land was restored to its original owner and all people who were servants were liberated. Land that had been sold to pay debts was returned, and indentured servants were freed. Can you imagine the impact on the real estate business, and especially on banks? This year of Jubilee emphasized that the land was God’s and could not be sold permanently, so they were just stewards of God’s property (Lev. 25:23).
Jesus and the Sabbath in the Gospels
We find in the four gospels that Jesus continually interacts with the authorities concerning His different view of the Sabbath from theirs. Mark 2:23-28 is a good example of Jesus butting heads with the Jewish authorities over the Sabbath. As they were walking through a grainfield, Jesus’ disciples were picking off heads of grain, separating the wheat from the chaff and eating the grain. The Pharisees objected to this on the grounds it constituted working on the Sabbath. Jesus replied to them by using the story of David, who when he was in need ate the consecrated bread which was only meant for the priests to eat on the Sabbath. Jesus’ point was that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”. What was Jesus’ source for this pronouncement? In verse 28 He said, “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath”. By these statements Jesus was saying that He was the author and interpreter of the Sabbath, and it was given to benefit man, not to deprive him. Jesus was also saying what was important was the spirit of the law and not the letter. Let me interject five principles I see here:
1. David set a precedent that human need is a higher moral obligation.
2. God created the Sabbath for the well being of humans as a gracious gift and not a burdensome command.
3. Tradition of men is always superseded by the Messiah, Jesus is Lord
4. The Sabbath is a time to do good, and Jesus has freed us to apply it by the leading of the Holy Spirit. This principle is revealed again in the next story in Mark 3:1-6. Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath against the objections of the Pharisees. Jesus’ reply was, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life, or to allow him to die?”
5. The New Test. Christian is free to apply the law not by the letter, but in a way which would honor the spirit of the Law.
New Wine in New Wineskins
That Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and feels free to change the way things were being done raises the possibility of a future change. In Luke 5:36-39, Jesus taught in the parable of the wineskins which precedes Luke’s account of the Sabbath controversy that He had brought a complete renewal of the religious forms and their application; and now Jesus shows in the Sabbath controversies that the renewal also applies to the Sabbath.
What do Modern Day Critics Say ?
In spite of the fact that Jesus ushered in the New Covenant of grace, and all the civil and ceremonial laws were made obsolete by Jesus’ perfect infinite sacrifice so that all sin of all time could be forgiven; many critics would say that the Sabbath was part of the Ten Commandments and since nine of the ten are repeated in the New Test., it implies all ten apply to the church. They would further quote Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5:17-18 that He did not come to change the law but to fulfill it. Further He said that not one bit of the law would be changed.
What does it mean to us that Jesus came to fulfill the law? First that Jesus paid the penalty for all of us who have broken the law so that by believing in Him, our slate is clean. Secondly, in the New Covenant that He brought in, the Holy Spirit indwells believers and changes them from the inside out so that they desire to fulfill the spirit of the law, and are being led and empowered to obey it. What did Jesus mean “until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter shall pass away until all is accomplished”? First He was saying that every bit of the law is meaningful and important, and will be fulfilled. He also was restating verse 17 in a more demonstrative way, but verse 18 means exactly the same thing as v.17; Jesus came to fulfill the law, and in the same way, “all is accomplished”. The folly of trying to keep the letter of the law is demonstrated by the six illustrations that follow these statements in Matt.5:21-48. The Pharisees attempts to follow the Ten Commands were revealed to be an embarrassing failure. Jesus taught that God judges the inner man, what is in his heart, and what his intentions are. Therefore, Jesus interprets and applies the law according to the spirit of the law and not just the outward observance or letter of the law. This principle is revealed again in the Matt.6 examples which contrast the mere outward observance of the law by hypocrites versus the inner faithful, well intentioned observance by Jesus’ disciples.
If someone persists that “Jesus did not come to abolish the law” in v.17 means we must continue the Sabbath in the same way, then consistency demands that they also continue the food laws. Do you know any Christians who decide what to eat based on whether it has split hoofs or divided hoofs (Lev.11:3-4)? Can you imagine pulling into Burger House and saying, “I’ll have a split hoof burger please”? In the same way, do you know of any Christian who would be willing to observe the “year of Jubilee” according to the law? He would be required to forgive all the money owed him and return all real estate he had bought in the last 49 years. No, of course not, these laws were peculiar to the set apart nation of Israel that do not apply to us, therefore their purpose has been “fulfilled” and “accomplished”. The Sabbath law may apply to the church, but in the New Covenant it is according to the spirit of the law, not the letter. Jesus never contradicted the fourth commandment, but clearly Jesus contradicted their interpretation and application of the Sabbath. All four gospels insist on the Lordship of Jesus over the Sabbath; therefore the issue has been moved away from a legal question to a study of what Jesus would have us do in our New Covenant relationship with Him.
Next week we continue in part two by investigating what the N.T. authors like Luke, Paul, and John had to say about the observance of the Sabbath. We also will study the historical movement from Saturday to Sunday. When did the church do this and why? When did Christians stop calling it the Sabbath, and start calling it the Lord’s Day? What about people who have to work on Sunday like pro athletes?