What About the Sabbath? Part 6

Previous posts in this series examined the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Gospels, the practice of the disciples, and the Epistles. In this final installment, we will consider the question, “What does the Sabbath mean for me today?”

The spectrum of Christian reaction to, and teaching on, the Fourth Commandment runs from total disregard on one end to Pharisaical obsession on the other. The consensus seems skewed toward the former, however, so any suggestion that we should restrict our actions on the Sabbath will be labeled as legalism by many. We live in a post-Christian society and the ethics of capitalism have shaped us not just in the marketplace.¹ We have gone beyond that which the Israelites were condemned for by Amos.

Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?”

Amos 8:4-6 (ESV)

The Sabbath is no longer a hinderance to our 24/7 consumerism (unless you want something from Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A) as it was to those Amos spoke to. Let us return for a moment to remind ourselves what the Fourth Commandment says.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, 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. 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 (ESV)

Work six, rest one. Not just you, but everyone who works for you. That is the simplest, most straightforward reading of these verses I can manage.²  This raises the question, “What is work?” That was the question the Pharisees were seeking to answer in their interpretation and application of the the Fourth Commandment, and we can see the danger looming already.

I would offer this tentative definition for your consideration. Any activity you are paid to perform is work. So, we should refrain from doing anything to earn a wage on the Sabbath. This may not be possible for everyone — myself included as I’ve had to work the past two Sundays — but I think it’s a fair reading of the text.

After spending several weeks looking at all these passages, I don’t think we can escape the command to keep the Sabbath. We have been discussing ways to try to better observe the Sabbath in our household, but I’m not going to post those here. I encourage you to make it a matter of prayer. Ask the Lord what he would have you do (and not do) on the Sabbath. Pray that he would teach you how to be obedient to his word in this area (and all others).

God desires us to rest in him. Let us have the faith to set aside our work and do just that.

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

Matthew 11:28 (ESV)


¹ I commend David Bentley Hart’s thoughtful article in First Things to your consideration and reflection on this point.

² I have learned to appreciate Augustine of Hippo’s penchant for allegorical interpretation of texts, but my default remains unchanged: when in doubt, take the path of least explanation.

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What About the Sabbath? Part 5

Thus far we have looked at the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Gospels, and the practice of the disciples in relation to the Sabbath. Today I will look at two more New Testament texts.

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. 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.

Colossians 2:13-17 (ESV)

What does Paul mean by “let no one pass judgement on you”? Does it mean we can completely disregard these observances? Or does it mean we should not become consumed in their observance, as the Pharisees had?

This one text is not clear enough to warrant complete disregard of the Fourth Commandment. The early church drew no such conclusion, either. The teaching of candidates for baptism historically included the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles Creed. They did not redact the Fourth Commandment in their teaching.

Hebrews 4:1-11 is the last teaching on the Sabbath in the New Testament.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.”

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

Hebrews 4:1-11 (ESV)

This passage clearly has both symbolic and eschatological applications. It also serves to reinforce the importance of rest in God. Coupled with the above passage in Colossians, we are reminded that the Sabbath is a shadow of things to come. This does not, however, mean that it is unimportant now. On the contrary, all of our worship — including the Eucharist — is a shadow of things to come.

A shadow tells us some things about an object, and without the shadow, we may have no knowledge of it at all. Remember Plato’s cave allegory? The inhabitants knew the outside world only through the shadows of objects that appeared upon the cave wall. When released, they recognized objects they had previously seen only as shadows.

Our observance of the Sabbath will always be imperfect in this life. We will only experience God’s perfect, promised rest when all work is done, especially the work of fighting against sin and the effects thereof. But that does not mean we cannot rest at all until that great and glorious day, any more than we are excused from worship until we can do it perfectly.

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What About the Sabbath? Part 4

Thus far, we have examined teaching on the Sabbath from the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the Gospels. Today I want to look at the practice of the disciples concerning the Sabbath. It can be easy to focus exclusively on what was taught in the New Testament and overlook what was actually done.

For instance, consider Mark 1:32: “That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons.” (ESV) Why does Mark mention the detail that this happened at sundown? Because this bit of narrative begins in verse 21: “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching.” The Jews waited to bring the sick and the oppressed until after sundown because that was the end of the Sabbath, when they could perform work again, like carrying a lame or sick person to where Jesus was in Peter’s house.

Since this was the beginning of the Jesus’ ministry, we expect the crowds to still be “under the law,” so it’s no real surprise to understand that Mark is telling us that the Sabbath was observed. Surely once we arrive at the end of the Gospel, the disciples would be free of any such works-righteousness, right? Not so fast.

Consider the death and burial of Jesus. In Mark 15:42 and following, we are told of the burial of Jesus happening before the Sabbath began. The women noted where he was laid by Joseph of Arimathea and then, “When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” (Mark 16:1 ESV) Some of Jesus’ closest disciples waited through the Sabbath before returning to perform burial preparations on Jesus’ body. We usually skip right by this, except maybe to explain the calculation of three days in the grave, and miss the obedience to the Fourth Commandment that is still taking place.

Moving on to Acts, written by Luke, we have a few more Sabbath references. Consider Acts 1:12, immediately after the ascension: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away.” Why would Luke, a Gentile and close associate of the Apostle Paul, use such a reference? Granted, it is an incidental mention of Sabbath observance, but it should give us pause to consider. Not much is know about Theophilus, the addressee of Luke and Acts, but it is not unwarranted to think he may also have been a Gentile.

One could understand Matthew using a reference to a “Sabbath day’s journey” because he was a Jew writing to Jews. It only makes sense for Luke to use such a reference if the practice continued in the early church, and therefore Christian converts understood what a Sabbath day’s journey was. (2,000 cubits, or roughly 1 kilometer) If the practice of keeping to Sabbath regulations had been abolished, there is no reason to mention the distance traveled in this manner, if at all.

The Sabbath also continued as a day of religious instruction and gathering. We note throughout Acts, Paul regularly teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath. (See Acts 13:44, for example.)

Tomorrow, I will look at two references by Paul to the Sabbath in his letters and then move to implications for us as believers seeking to live in obedience to God.

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What About the Sabbath? Part 3

Thus far, we have considered teaching from the Old Testament and the Apocrypha on the Sabbath. Today, we will move into the New Testament.

In the New Testament, we witness three conflicts with the Mosaic law — Peter with dietary laws, Paul with circumcision, and Jesus with the Sabbath. Jesus seemed to be in constant conflict with the Pharisees over what constituted acceptable Sabbath conduct. The first passage in the New Testament concerning the issue is typical.

In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field. They start harvesting and threshing the grain — at least on a very small scale — as they pick some heads, rub them between their hands, and eat them. To the Pharisees, it is a clear-cut case of Sabbath-breaking. “Look! Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” cry the Pharisees.

Jesus rolls his eyes¹ and gives two counter-examples from the Old Testament. The priests work each Sabbath and David broke the Levitical law by eating the Bread of the Presence. Jesus then makes three statements: “Something greater than the temple is here,” “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” and “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Jesus then enters a synagogue to find a man with a withered hand and is asked if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. It’s not a wholly unreasonable question since the Mosaic law does not specifically address it, but they are seeking a reason to accuse him, not information. Christ answers in good rabbinical fashion with a question. “Which one of you, who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?” The implied and assumed answer is, “Every one of you.” “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep?” Again, the obvious answer is, “Much more.” From this short argument Jesus issues the conclusion, “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” He then promptly heals the man’s hand, which enrages the Pharisees who plot to destroy Jesus.²

Few things seemed to anger the Pharisees as much as Jesus healing on the Sabbath. He was violating their tightly-controlled interpretation of “work” on the Sabbath, but he was also upstaging them in doing so. He was not merely walking through grain fields, he was healing people of all sorts of ailments. This was something they were unable to do and was making him very popular among the people.

The Gospels record about 8 instances in which Jesus healed on the Sabbath, in addition to mentioning him teaching on the Sabbath. (No one ever opposed that activity. Teachers, is your job not work?) In many of the instances, when he was challenged, he gave a similar reply to the one we considered from Matthew 12. He asked either about livestock or children needing assistance or basic care on the Sabbath. The unstated answer always being, “Of course you do that.”

Was Jesus resolutely anti-fourth commandment? Tomorrow we will examine some texts from the Gospel that indicate the importance of Sabbath-keeping to his disciples.


¹ There is, of course, no scriptural support for my conjecture. In fact, I am most likely projecting myself onto Christ at this point, which is something we need to be wary of. It is easy to slip from “What would Jesus do” to “What would I do if I was Jesus?”

² The Pharisees are enraged for multiple reasons. The most reasonable reason is that Jesus is asserting authority to interpret the law which could be construed as a claim to messianic identity. To claim this falsely is blasphemy and worthy of death.

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What About the Sabbath? Part 2

Yesterday we looked at some key Old Testament passages regarding the Sabbath. Today, we’ll look at the inter-testamental period, as recorded in the Apocrypha. (If you’re new to the Apocrypha, you can read my intro here.)

Regardless of your feelings about the inspiration and canonicity of the Apocrypha, it does provide insight into the development of some themes in post-exilic Judaism. The Sabbath is not mentioned extensively, but 1 & 2 Maccabees do give us some points to ponder.

1 Maccabees 2 tells the story of Mattathias, who defied the Gentile King’s orders and refused to offer sacrifices to idols or defile the Sabbath. He fled Jerusalem with his followers and was pursued. About 1,000 of his followers were attacked by the Gentiles on the Sabbath and they chose to die instead of violate the Sabbath (2:33-38). Mattathias learns of this slaughter and mourns for the slain. Then he and his followers do some analysis.

“If we all do as our brethren have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.”

1 Maccabees 2:40-41 (RSV)

This raises interesting and important questions about Sabbath observance that are not addressed in the Pentateuch. Armed conflict is certainly work; the exertion of hand-to-hand combat is complete. Yet in all the conflicts with the Philistines, or even the occupation of the promised land, Sabbath regulations are never mentioned.

In the period of the Maccabees, however, there is a renewed emphasis on the Sabbath. Whether rightly or wrongly, the returned exiles from Babylon held Sabbath observance in high regard. (See Nehemiah 10 and 13.) Sabbath-keeping, always a distinctive feature of Judaism, became even more important to those trying to re-establish Israel.

One further passage offers a bit more light on the question of war and the Sabbath. 2 Maccabees 8:24-29 gives us an instance of the Jews on the offensive achieving a decisive victory against the Gentiles. But, they cut off their pursuit of the defeated army because of the arrival of the Sabbath.

There is much that could be made of these incidences, and applications drawn from them, but I want to restrain our discussion of how we should observe the Sabbath until we have looked at the whole counsel of Scripture. Instead, I will leave you with some questions for reflection.

What do you make of the willingness of 1,000 men to die in 1 Maccabees 2? Were they “putting the Lord to the test” or honoring God? We don’t read that they expressed any hope of miraculous deliverance. Is that a lack of faith or a sober assessment of their situation? When Mattathias and the rest of his followers made a conscious decision to defend themselves on the Sabbath, did they demonstrate a lack of faith or wise judgement?

Pondering these life-and-death questions related to the Sabbath help us to consider our application of the fourth commandment. They also give us insight into the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees over what is proper on the Sabbath day, but that’s for another day.

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What About the Sabbath?

Today, I’m going to examine the Old Testament treatment of the Sabbath. In coming days, I’ll look at the New Testament, and ultimately, how we should observe this day.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, 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. 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 (ESV)

The keeping of the Sabbath is the fourth commandment. It provides a logical transition between the law that regulates our actions toward God and the law that regulates our actions toward others. The commandment to keep the Sabbath deals with both, directing us to sacrifice a day each week to God and to allow those who work for us to rest on that day.

This commandment is the only one that points directly to the actions of God as a basis — the resting of God at the completion of the six days of creation. It was first given in Exodus 16, even before the ascent of Mount Sinai to receive the law. It was connected to the collection of manna. The Israelites were to gather enough each morning for that day only, and were not to gather more for the next day or it would rot. (This is a precursor to give us this day our daily bread.) On the sixth day, however, they were to gather enough for two days for on the seventh, there was no manna from heaven. It was the only day manna lasted overnight.

To violate the Sabbath was a capital offense. In Numbers 15, we read of a man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath who was subsequently stoned to death for his transgression. The Sabbath was as serious as blasphemy, murder, and adultery.

The idea was expanded to include a Sabbath year every seven years when Israel was to let the land rest (Leviticus 25). Ultimately, it was to culminate in a year of jubilee after seven seven-year cycles — once every 50 years. There is no evidence that Israel ever practiced any of these year-long Sabbaths as a nation and they were judged for this, just as the prophets foretold. The exile to Babylon was in part to give the land the rest they had refused to grant it (2 Chronicles 36:21).

The one exception to the Sabbath rest was for the Levitical priesthood. The priests were to conduct the offerings in the tabernacle before the Lord seven days a week. On special Sabbaths, there was even more “work” to be done with offerings. The Levites were not given a blanket exemption, but were explicitly commanded to give offerings on the Sabbath.

The prophets seemed to speak against the Sabbath, but a careful reading reveals this is not quite the case. Isaiah 1:13-17 and 56:1-2 are prime examples. God is not suddenly anti-fourth commandment. The people were observing festivals and special days, but neglect his law in every other facet of their lives. God desired his people to keep the Sabbath, while keeping with the other nine commandments as well. They incurred his wrath by their disobedience, and their clinging to excuses to feast and rest based on his word was blatant hypocrisy.

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Shhhhhh…

I am an introvert. What does that mean? It means different things for different people. For me, being introverted and being analytical are interwoven. I am quiet and reserved because I observe and think. There is usually a lot going on in my head.

Being analytical has served me well, though. It enables me to plan, break down problems, and develop strategies. It can also be exhausting. If I am sitting in a room with a lot going on, I find it very hard to focus. My wife, also an introvert, does not have this problem. I am jealous of her ability to tune out the world around her while reading a book. To me, all sensory input must be processed.

This has ramifications for home and work. At work, it means cubicles and open floor plans are one step up from being boiled in oil. In such environments, I am less productive and any productivity I have takes focused effort. It’s not that I can’t participate in collaborative work. I can discuss plans and problems with a team, but when the session is over, I’m still thinking about it, sometimes for hours.

Work this past week has been noisy on both fronts. We’ve been in a different workspace with much less privacy; my workstation is in a room with up to 8 other people in it. Add to that, we’ve been doing planning and analysis for some very unpleasant contingencies. I’ve been coming home very tired. My mind has been mulling over “what-if’s” and “how will we’s” in addition to normal work stuff. It’s part of why I haven’t blogged as much this week. I’ve been drained, and most of what I’ve been focused on isn’t within the scope of this blog.

But this isn’t just a personal issue. I wonder at my co-workers. Who else is being sucked dry just because we are in a different setting? Because the normal routine is altered? I imagine it is not just people exactly like me. It may be those who need a consistent workplace or routine to be effective. On the other hand, I imagine some are probably energized by the change of venue and schedule.

Fortunately, I have a very understanding wife, partly because we are alike in a lot of ways. We both value order and quiet. We like to talk, but we are also comfortable being quiet together. The things that make our house pleasant for her do the same for me.

It is also fortunate that introversion has become more understood in our society recently. Susan Cain’s book, Quiet Revolution, has been a key in this new awareness, but it is still up to us to find ways to survive in an extroverted world. I’m not advocating for introvert rights (though I can dream) as much as trying to navigate our world as an introvert.

Our society rails against us with a bias toward extroverts and the mantra to be “agile and adaptable.” What if instead, we have people who produce well in a “paced and predictable” environment? We may not be able to control the world, but we can shape our corner of it.

As a second-order effect of this past week — and the anticipation of next week being like it — I’m considering how to stay energized and creative in the midst of those things that drain me. I will take all opportunities I can to recharge in quiet, peaceful environments. Isaiah 30:15 could well be one of my life verses:

For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”

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