The Sabbath is a weekly holiday or day of rest which is observed from sunset on Friday until dark on Saturday evening. It is found in the Ten Commandments:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. Exodus 20:8-11 (NKJV)
For thirty years I was in a Christian who was of the persuasion that the Sabbath commandment was a universal and perpetual obligation. I believed that the Sabbath was a moral imperative, even for Gentile Christians today, which required cessation from labour and secular pursuits on the seventh day of each week (Saturday). Business transactions, swimming, popping corn, riding bicycles and discussing “worldly” topics were seen as being displeasing to God on this day.
This is part one of a series of articles about the Sabbath. These articles on Solus Christus will explain some of the reasons why requiring new covenant Gentile Christians to observe the Sabbath (as a prerequisite to salvation, a mark of spiritual loyalty or a test of obedience) misses the mark. It fails to recognize the Biblical directives, original application, apostolic teaching as well as the authentic Jewish understanding of the Sabbath.
A Day for Refreshment
… in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed. Exodus 31:17 (NKJV)
Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed. Exodus 23:12 (NKJV)
There is a beauty in the rest that the Sabbath embodies and represents. In a world where we are worn out by stress, continually pressured to make more money, and when important relationships are compromised to fulfil this never-ending quest, there is wisdom in setting apart one day in seven.
In this context the Sabbath serves man by breaking the cycle of slavery to a materialistic and consumption-driven world, giving us time to cherish God and those who he has put around us. It affords a time of healing and an opportunity for us to reset our priorities by offering a break from the treadmill of everyday life, placing a pause in our daily grind.
Our family continues to set aside each Saturday as a day of refreshment; it provides us with a weekly time-out. We are able to spend time together doing things that we would be otherwise unable to. These activities may include preparation for Bible class (my wife and I both teach Sunday School in an evangelical church), worship and singing, fellowship with friends, hiking in nature, solving a jigsaw puzzle, or reading together.
How could any fault could be found with such a good thing? Can a blessing become a curse?
The Problem of Sabbatarian”ism”
Though Sabbath is a potential blessing for those who take time out once a week, it is devoid of redemptive power, as is circumcision or the Passover. There was a time that I viewed the Sabbath as one of many necessary items to gain or maintain God’s favour; indeed most Sabbatarians feel deep down that their Sabbath keeping is a “means of grace”; failure to “keep” it results in a person falling from favour with God.
Sabbatarian”ism” takes a gift that God has given, and crafts it into a system of bondage. The Sabbath’s original purpose of breaking slavery is turned inside out when it is made into its own taskmaster and form of slavery.
Sabbatarian”ism” forms it into the core of a belief system and it becomes a spiritual identity, often prominently expressed in the names of Sabbatarian organizations and groups. Everything in life, whether practical or theological, spins on the centre of this one ceremonial command.
The primary mandate of Sabbatarians is to convince those who already trust in Christ that they are incomplete without this “truth”. In their missionary efforts, new believers stumble and reject the gospel, because they become confused or are unwilling to bear this yoke of bondage. The Sabbath is placed before them as an unavoidable gate of entrance into Christ and his body.
I have personally witnessed the door that it opens to rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, as I have known two bright and sincere Seventh-day Adventist ministers who converted to Orthodox Judaism because they could not reconcile keeping the sign of the old covenant while professing to live in the new. This reveals a fatal flaw in the “Sabbatarian” gospel, when even their ministers do not understand that they are complete in Christ and acceptable to God through His finished work.
The Sabbath Used as a Tool for Control
Ecclesiastical institutions control their members with the Sabbath. Using it as a tool to keep their people away from “apostate” Protestant “Sunday churches” gives the clergy job security, as well as dominion over their member’s spiritual lives. It offers them the opportunity to omit essential parts of the gospel of Jesus Christ in their teaching, without any challenge from outside sources.
Thus, like many Roman Catholics, Sabbatarians are often born, get married, and die in the institution which they are certain is “the only true church.” It is a deception, and antithetical to the principles of the Apostolic church, which was admonished not to venerate holy places, holy days, or holy institutions.
This form of Sabbatarianism is damaging. Whereas non-Sabbatarians usually leave preference of a day of rest or worship to the individual conscience, Sabbatarians weaponize this issue, using it to judge, condemn, ridicule and destroy those who do not agree. They withdraw from other Christians, and view themselves as spiritually superior to other believers based on their day of worship (aka, “Sabbath keepers” vs “Sunday-keepers”). It is elitist, legalistic, threatening and exclusive.
Those who become disillusioned with Sabbatarian institutions have usually been so prejudiced against non-Sabbatarian Christian believers, that they often leave Christ altogether, rather than seek fellowship and healing in a “Sunday church.”
They are “burned over”, because they have been taught that the Sabbath is the mark of demarcation between true and false Christians, and that Sunday observance originated with pagan “sun worship”. So, when they leave a spiritually abusive organization that misunderstands and misrepresents the gospel of Jesus, they write off all Christianity as “neo-paganism” and fall away. I know this, because I have good friends who have followed this path.
Thus Sabbatarianism is cultic, because it centres the Christian faith around an old covenant ritual rather than the Person and work of Christ. It calls people to separate themselves from the body of Christians who celebrate the Lord’s Communion together, to the observance of this ceremonial commandment, or else receive the mark of the beast, suffer the seven last plagues, and burn in the lake of fire. Nowhere does the gospel teach or even allow for such adherence to ritual.
The Sabbath Made for Man
The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Mark 2:27 (NKJV)
Jesus taught that the intention of the Sabbath was to minister to the needs of humanity. Serving up the Sabbath with the threat of hellfire is a clear declararion that mankind is indeed the slave of the Sabbath.
Importance of Obedience
The true believer in Jesus Christ will be faithful to all the commandments and regulations of the covenant that he or she is in. Obedience will always follow true, saving faith. However, the obligations under the new covenant differ from the old, they are of a different order. They don’t consist in outward forms and ceremonies, but in changes to the heart, which were prefigured by the sacred forms and ceremonies of the old dispensation. In the new covenant, each of these take on a significance in the Person who makes them much more spiritually poignant than their shadows ever could.
Failing to recognize the purpose of a ritual or ceremonial law is not compensated by fastidiously observing it according to its former conventions. All the animal sacrifices in the world are unable to atone for a single sin, and the strictest form of Sabbath keeping is powerless to bring about the rest and shalom that is freely available through trusting Christ and his completed work on the cross for salvation. (See, Seven reasons the Sabbath law is ceremonial and not moral).
I realize that Sabbatarians are well-meaning. In their sincerity, they often suffer great hardship for their belief in the Sabbath, though it is through lack understanding that they bear a burden that Christians were never required to carry.
Legalism differs from obedience in this respect: legalism fails to understand the spirit and intention of a law through context, and keeps it blindly without regard to cost. Sometimes this cost is just too high.
Resolving the Sabbath Issue
It is helpful in this debate to distinguish between:
- The Sabbath as a continuing obligation of refraining from work on one day in seven, in order to gain or maintain God’s favour, and therefore a necessity for salvation (attempting to fulfil the sabbath according to the old covenant), versus
- The Sabbath as an obligation which has been fulfilled in Jesus, an observance which ultimately pointed toward our spiritual rest when we trust in the person and work of Christ for salvation (the Sabbath is realized in the new covenant)
A Blessing or a Curse?
So then, is the Sabbath a blessing, or a curse? That will entirely depend how you approach it.
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.” Galatians 3:10 (NKJV)
The Sabbath principle is certainly valid, and a benefit to mankind. Resting one day in seven has many positives, and is a practice which too few enjoy. Yet, once it is placed in the context of meriting God’s favour, and when what was intended as a ceremonial observance for a particular people is turned into an oppressive universal decree from which nobody can escape, it becomes a yoke of bondage. The day becomes filled with sunset calendars, a mental checklist of dos and dont’s, and the underlying sense that no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to measure up to the lofty standards of not doing your pleasure or speaking your own words on this day.
My desire is that Sabbatarians would recognize what their salvation is founded on in the gospel. It doesn’t depend on your fulfillment of, but Christ’s fulfillment of, old covenant ceremonial observances. It is found in the rest that is only discovered in trusting the completed work of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Next: The Jewish Perspective of the Sabbath
The next Solus Christus blog post will reveal correspondence I have had with several Jewish rabbis, who have been kind enough to answer a short list of questions. Their replies represent the point of view of a people who have been the guardians of the Sabbath throughout the millennia. The Jews live and breathe the Sabbath, and their opinion has not been affected or altered by the arguments of Christian Sabbatarians over the centuries. It is based on a natural reading of the Bible in its original language, and guarded by the protection of a people and culture that would yield its life to be true to the commandments that they received.
Their perspective is both interesting, and challenging.