Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Sabbath

Do Christians have to keep the Sabbath (specifically Saturday)?

Jesus (his life, death, resurrection and accession) is the pivotal moment in all of human history.  God became flesh, lived among us, died for us and was resurrected to new life.  Jesus is not simply a prophet or good teacher or wise person.  He is Yahweh become flesh.
This changes everything.  I do actually mean everything.  To go back to the way we related to God and others before Jesus is not a real option.  We need to remember that God actually becoming human is amazing and totally earth shattering.  The question is not, “do things change?” but “how and to what extent?”
So how does the Sabbath change as a result of Jesus?  (To claim that we have to obey the Sabbath simply because it is in the Old Testament fails to take Jesus into account.)

Now I am not advocating that we throw out the Old Testament.  The Old Testament is God’s word, it is inspired, it is an account of how Yahweh interacted and dwelt with humanity.  To understand Jesus, Yahweh, and the rest of the New Testament, we need to understand the Old Testament.  What I am advocating is that Jesus was Yahweh and his presence ushered in a new time period for humanity.  Things changed.  The Old Testament is read and understood in light of the New Testament.

So how do we know to what extent things changed?  We read and study the New Testament comparing it to the Old Testament.

So let’s talk about the Sabbath.

One of the most striking things I find is that after Jesus’ death and resurrection the Sabbath is hardly mentioned in the Bible.  It is just not an issue.  Now this is striking when you compare this to the writings of the Old Testament prophets.  The Sabbath was huge for the prophets, it was vitally important, it was the marker of faithfulness to God.  Sabbath is also huge in the life of Jesus.  There is constant dialogue about the Sabbath with Jesus and the Pharisees.  Suddenly after the resurrection the whole conversation about the Sabbath disappears.  It is impossible to imagine that suddenly at this point everyone finally figured out the Sabbath and got it right.  In fact if it was such a vital issue one would think that there would be even more written about it since the church was reaching out to Gentile people, Gentiles who would not have known or grown up with the Sabbath.  Or at least you would think there would continued conversation about Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath.  But no, the Sabbath is hardly mentioned.

New Testament passages after the resurrection that specifically mention the Sabbath.
Hebrews 4:9 
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God

The context of this verse is actually not about the Sabbath at all but about God giving rest to his people.  So this is not really relevant to the discussion.

Colossians 2:16
Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.

The context of this verse:  Paul has just explained the significance of the cross of Jesus.  He has described how Jesus defeated “the powers and authorities”.  From understanding Jesus' victory on the cross Paul moves and says this verse.
Now some of have argued that “a Sabbath day” refers only to pagan holidays.  However I am not sure one could ever link “Sabbath day” to pagan holidays.
Some say that this does not refer to the normal Sabbath but to the special Sabbaths.  This is a possible interpretation, which would mean that this passage is not that relevant to this discussion.
Of course this passage can be understood as referring to a regular Sabbath day.  If this is the case then it becomes obvious that the Sabbath is not vital in the new covenant.

It is interesting to note that outside of the gospels these are the only two references that explicitly mention the Sabbath.

However there is another verse that is important.
Romans 14:5-6
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord.

Is this verse about the Sabbath?
One reason to say no is that within this context Paul talks about meat sacrificed to idols.  He talks about whether to eat or to not eat of these meats.  Since he is talking about food sacrificed to idols the reasoning goes then he must be talking about pagan holidays.  However there is a small problem with this understanding.  It is difficult to believe that Paul is saying that it is not a problem for a person to honour a pagan holiday, to think they are “sacred”.
Another interpretation is to say that this is once again referring to a special Sabbath, or a holy day.  This is a possible interpretation.
However I think this is talking about the regular Sabbath.  The entire context of the book of Romans is how do Gentile and Jewish believers get along and worship together.  One of those conflicts would have been the Sabbath.   Here Paul basically states that this is a non-issue.

Based on my understanding of the impact of Jesus becoming flesh and through my reading of the New Testament, I believe that as Christians we are not obligated to strictly observe the Sabbath on Saturday.

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