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.