The Sabbath

Many people have deep convictions about the Sabbath Day. The Sabbath Day is the seventh day of the week. In Spanish, Saturday is rightly called “Sabado.”

Some think the Sabbath Day was changed to Sunday—quite a leap, in my view. Others think that the church should meet, and people should not work on Sabbath Day, so they form “Seventh Day” religions. Some Messianic Jews even believe that Christ actually arose on Saturday!

When people have agendas, it is difficult to reasonably address these matters. Emotions fly high. And, even among those who are reasonably objective, there is always room to disagree. Here is my take.

Although God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, there is no implication in the Bible that the Sabbath Day was observed until the Torah was given. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for example, are nowhere said to observe the Sabbath. From creation week until the time of Moses, the Sabbath is nowhere to be found in Scripture.

This suggests that—unlike murder or adultery or bearing false witness—the Sabbath command is not grounded in God’s nature and is not a moral issue. It has always been wrong to murder or commit adultery, even before the Torah was given to Moses.

Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament. The one that is not repeated is the Sabbath Day command. Either this is merely an omission or an omission that makes a statement.

The Torah was given to the Hebrew (Jewish) people, not to mankind. And, although Christians study the Torah (Law), we are not under its system of its bundled commands (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). Some of the Law pertains to how Israel was to be governed legally; some of it pertains to the Old Testament rituals centered around the central sanctuary (the Tabernacle and later the Temple), as well as matters of dress, personal religious practice, morality, and theology. It is so interwoven that our attempt to categorize certain commands is open to debate.

It is important to understand that, although we learn from the Torah (it is part of Scripture, all of which is both inspired and profitable), the Torah is streamlined for the Hebrew people.

Christianity, in its purest form, is “Trans-cultural Messianic Judaism,” as David Stern puts it. In the Torah, God’s eternal Law is combined with God’s purposes for the Hebrew culture (Jewish people). We gain great wisdom from the Torah, but gentile believers are not held to its many obligations (Galatians 5:18, Colossians 2:16-17).

Let us narrow our discussion about the Sabbath. There are a host of viewpoints (and some are agenda-driven or quite a stretch, while others are viable), but here is where I have settled.

The original Sabbath command was primarily about rest, not gathering in a building to worship. As one source puts it:

The essence of Sabbath-keeping was physical rest. In Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the Sabbath command specifies rest from labor as the way to keep the day “holy.” There is no mention of going to a worship service each Sabbath. Other passages in the Old Testament also define the Sabbath by rest, not by attendance at worship services. See Exodus 31:12-17, Numbers 15:32, Nehemiah 13:15-22 and Jeremiah 17:19-27. (gci.org)

In time, the Jews also began to assemble as a community on Saturday, which was something not commanded in Scripture (a holy convocation [Leviticus 23:3] in the Torah was understood as a family gathering, and the key idea of the Sabbath was rest, probably implying time to memorize Torah as well, which was considered a form of rest). During the Babylonian captivity, the synagogue developed.

As a Jew, Jesus would have rested on the Sabbath, which was Saturday. The fact that Jesus participated in the synagogue suggests this was a good innovation. We need to remember that the synagogue was a Jewish innovation, not part of the Torah.

Saturday will always be the Sabbath Day, but a day which is intrinsically no different from other days (Romans 14:5-6), even though God set it apart for Israel, setting it apart as a day of rest. Jesus and the Jewish believers (by and large) continued to be Torah observant, so they continued to eat kosher, observe the holidays, and even offer temple sacrifices (Acts 21:17-28).

Gentile believers, however, were not constrained to follow Torah (Acts 15:19-21), but were under certain moral aspects of the Law. Based upon the Romans 14 passage and a number of others, the bottom line seems to be this: Jewish believers who wanted to continue to observe the Torah (but trusting in the atoning work of Jesus, not their Torah observance, for justification) could do so. These Messianic Jews, I believe, are called the “Israel of God,” (Galatians 6:16) in contrast to what we call the “Judaizers” who demanded Torah observance (Acts 15:1) as a condition of salvation.

In my opinion, early Jewish believers participated in the Synagogue on Saturday and then met with fellow Christians (Jew and gentile) on Sunday. Even gentile believers, however, may have been encouraged to get synagogue training in the Torah on Saturday (possibly inferred from Acts 15:21). Instruction in Torah is still important, even for gentile believers, since all Scripture is both inspired and profitable (2 Timothy 3:16-17); we can learn much from Torah, even if we are not obligated to be Torah observant.

Taking a wisdom approach toward the Torah (Romans 15:4) could lead us to the principle of “Sabbath rest,” the idea that we need to schedule a day to relax, but to mandate a particular day as “holy” might be a bit of a stretch (Romans 14:5).

So in my view, all Christians met together on Sunday to commemorate the resurrection, perhaps to give God the first part of the week, and to celebrate the fact that we are part of His new creation. For Jewish believers and perhaps some gentile believers, this was in addition to meeting on Saturday at the Synagogue with mainstream Jews.

Believers are to gather together regularly (Hebrews 10:23-25), but the Hebrews text does not demand we meet on a certain day. Nonetheless, if the option is available, it makes sense to meet on Sundays for the same reasons the early church met on Sundays. The first day of the week is when Jesus rose, it reminds us that we are the new creation, and it portions off the “first fruits” of our week to honor God.

Ed Vasicek Bio


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.

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TOvermiller's picture

The article here by Joel T. Williamson has been very helpful to me on this subject. It begins on p. 77 and demonstrates that the Sabbath observance is a feature of the Mosaic law which does not carry over into NT practice either as a law or as a binding, timeless principle (though, as you have mentioned, it does provide us with valuable, impactful truth nonetheless).

Also, as I understand, the OT Sabbath includes more than a weekly seventh day observance; it includes all of the other Sabbath festivals and years of rest as well. Thanks for preparing this article!

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

josh p's picture

Good one Ed thanks. I am reading this very section in “Israelology” right now. You seem to have similar positions to Fruchtenbaum, which I find really solid. Can you explain what you mean by this: “Gentile believers, however, were not constrained to follow Torah (Acts 15:19-21), but were under certain moral aspects of the Law.”
In what way were/are gentile believers under moral aspects of the Law? Thanks!

Ed Vasicek's picture

Josh asked:

 

In what way were/are gentile believers under moral aspects of the Law? Thanks!

Well, Josh, I wish could answer cleanly.  One of the most difficult issues is the relationship of the Torah to the Christian. I will do the best I can, but I find myself still a bit fluid on this matter after years of contemplation and study. Given that all Scripture is both inspired and profitable, I think the best answer is that we gain some wisdom from the Law about moral issues. The complexity is that we cannot neatly dissect what is moral from what is unique to Israel. Since the Sermon on the Mount is likely a series of Midrash(im) based upon the Torah, Jesus taught (by example) to look for applicable ways to implement Torah principles in our lives.  The principle of Sabbath rest (taking time to rest), for example, would be Torah derived (there is no similar NT principle, IM0),  

When it comes to tattoos, remarrying a spouse after you have married and divorced a latter spouse, or engaging in physical relations with one's wife during her menstrual cycle -- these could all be moral matters.  But, then again, they might not be. And therein lies the quandry.

The Laws of Leviticus 18:7-18 sort of define what the New Testament means by "immorality," and the Law is the background of the New Testament, both culturally and theologically.

One sure fire way to determine what Law mitzvot (commands)  are applicable to the Christian is by seeing the New Testament application of them, and also by trying to locate "mother texts" in the Old Testament that were developed by New Testament believers. This process of studying a New Testament text with its probable Old Testament "mother text"  is what I use in both of my books (The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul as Midrash). We know the prohibition against homosexuality is still in effect and is moral, for example, because it is repeated in the New Testament (I Corinthians 6:9).

The attempt to separate the commands uniquely given to Israel (thus, cultural -- adapted to their system of governance, the rituals and religious practices God gave them, and commands to keep them separate from and single them out from other peoples) and the trans-cultural (commands anyone who serves God needs to keep) is easier said that done. But we can attempt it.

I Timothy 1:8-11 establishes the concept that the moral teaching of the Torah is still in effect, but these Torah restrains should be unnecessary for those who live in accord with the New Testament teachings of grace, presumably because we are well-taught and thus already avoiding the Law's trans-cultural prohibitions:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,  understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers,  the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,  in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.

The above passage is perhaps the most exhaustive list of the moral commands of the law that are in force for the Christian, but Christians are restrained from these things precisely because they are walking in accord with the Gospel, not because they are "under the Law" as a system, but because they are under God's trans-cultural Law. Nonetheless, the foundation for the rest of Scripture is the Torah.

BTW, I have Israelology by Fruchtenbaum. I agree he is quite solid.

"The Midrash Detective"

Paul Henebury's picture

This is a well stated and sensible reading of the biblical materials.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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