Word Study #110 — Sabbath

Few issues generated as much controversy during Jesus’ earthly ministry as did the concept of sabbath observance. Please refer frequently to the previous study of “tradition” as we consider this as one example among many of a perfectly good and right principle gone awry under the weight of well-intentioned augmentation by “experts” to ensure the meticulous observance of God’s command.

The Jewish sources I was able to find base sabbath observance on the joyful celebration of two events: God’s having “rested” after his work of creation, and decreed similar weekly respite for his people – a privilege, in the ancient world, reserved for the wealthy and the powerful, but now extended to all; and the associated connection with their freedom from slavery in Egypt, where they also had enjoyed no rest. The former was “symbolized” by refraining from any activity deemed “creative”, or the exercise of any sort of control over one’s environment, and the latter by celebratory ceremonies – both of which, as we noted previously, are good and effective teaching tools.

The difficulty arises from efforts, though inspired by the very best of intentions, to enforce the observance of a directive by carefully (perhaps obsessively?) defining and enumerating specific proscribed activities. The Talmud organized these into 39 categories, each of which was further subdivided, itemized and explained, and all of which were strictly forbidden. The resulting “law” could be abrogated only when deemed absolutely necessary to save human life.

Jesus himself, as well as the apostles, habitually attended a synagogue on the sabbath, observing the accepted tradition. This was also a very practical decision: they went, frequently in order to teach, because that was the time and place where people gathered! This was clearly the case in Paul’s journeys, as well, seeking out synagogues in the Gentile world.
Controversy arose over the details: primarily healing (9x), but also such “trivialities” as picking a snack (“harvesting”) in the grain field. It was here that Jesus chose to take a stand. Cutting through the layers of tradition, he posed the prior and more basic question: “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good, or to do evil ? To save life, or to kill?” (Mk.3:4, Lk.6:9). His point is, neglecting or refusing to do “good” that is within one’s power, IS to do evil. With Jesus, we move out of the realm of prohibition, and into the realm of participation: actively doing the bidding of God.
He reminded them that although God “rested” on the seventh day, he did not retire! “My Father is still working, and so am I!” (Jn.5:17) (Please refer also to “rest” #77)
The authorities had eloquently demonstrated that although they made exceptions for the care of livestock (Mt.12:11, Lk.13:15-16, 14:5), and for their own ceremonies (Mt.12:5, Jn.7;22), they flatly refused to do so for the welfare of ordinary people (Lk.13:14, Jn.7:23). Jesus, in contrast, cares for people.

This is the context for his statement (Mk.2:27), “The sabbath came to be for the benefit of people, not people for the sabbath.” (This, too, is practical: it has been amply demonstrated in many settings that productivity increases if there is “time off” – but that is not the point here.)
A day set aside for rest, for worship, for sharing with the people of God, is a beautiful gift, to be enjoyed, and for which to give thanks! It is “the son of man [of God] (who) is Lord of the sabbath” (Mt.12:8, Mk.2:28, Lk.6:5) – and he is deeply concerned for the welfare of his people. For those who choose his Kingdom, he is also Lord of every other day in their lives, as well! But it is entirely appropriate to choose one in which to celebrate!

Interestingly, though, there is not a single instance in the New Testament where any particular day is commanded to be observed – except by the Jewish religious authorities who opposed Jesus! The expanding community after Pentecost is recorded as meeting together every day (Ac.2:46, 47; 5:42, 6:1, 16:5, 17:10, 17; 19:9) for fellowship, teaching, sharing, meals, and celebration! “The first day of the week” is mentioned as a meeting time in Troas (Ac.20:7) and as the time to collect funds for famine relief (I Cor.16:2), but nowhere else except the resurrection accounts. I like the idea of a resurrection celebration, but nowhere is it mandated.

Paul expresses a rather casual attitude in Rom.14, as an aside to his discussion of the observance (or not) of dietary regulations (14:5,13), emphasizing that neither days nor food should be allowed to become an issue in the brotherhood – “Someone judges one day beyond another; someone judges every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who pays attention to a day, does so for the Lord. And he who continues eating, is eating with respect to the Lord, for he is giving thanks to God.” His main concern (v.13) is “Then let’s no longer keep passing judgment on each other, but rather judge this: that no one place a cause of stumbling or falling away before his brother.”
Paul’s only specific mention of the word “sabbath” is in Col.2:16, where he warns against regulations that require special observances.

The only other New Testament use of “sabbath” (a different form of the word), occurs in Heb.4:9.We really need to see this in the whole context of chapters 3 and 4. The writer begins (3:1) with the best solution for any situation: “Fix your attention on Jesus!”

The subject under discussion is the failure of those who were delivered from Egypt under Moses’ leadership to “enter the rest” that God had offered. The diagnosis of the reason is blunt: “because of their unfaithfulness / disobedience” (3:16-19).The argument is a bit tough to follow in the beginning of chapter 4, but the admonition is clear: “Hang in there!!!” (3:6, 3:13, 3:14, 4:1, 4:3, 4:10, 4:11).
“There’s still a sabbath remaining for God’s people” (4:9),and “entering that rest” depends entirely upon maintaining identification with the Lord Jesus! (see references above)

We have been provided most graciously with three essential resources / “tools” for that “maintenance work”:
3:13 – the “coaching” of one another in/by the brotherhood
4:12 – evaluation and instruction by the Word of God
4:14-16 – the merciful intervention of our “great high priest, Jesus, the Son of God”.

Jesus himself is the promised “sabbath rest” for his faithful people!

Thanks be to God!

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