100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Monday, February 14, 2011

#45: Why don't Christians observe the Sabbath?

Yesterday I wrote about the Sabbath and why deliberately breaking the Sabbath was serious enough that it incurred the death penalty. But we have to wonder why the Sabbath law is no longer applicable to the people of God. The fact that Christians haven't traditionally been observing the Sabbath throughout history doesn't answer the question as to “Why not?” We are right to ask whether we should or shouldn’t observe the Sabbath.

Of course, there are a great many Old Testament laws which Christians aren't required to obey. We don't sacrifice animals in a temple or circumcise our children (at least, not out of religious duty), nor do we restrict the kinds of foods that we eat or identify ourselves as being in a ceremonial state of “clean” and “unclean”. All of these practices have ceased, and the Sabbath is in that category of laws which are not obligatory for Christians. Though I don't want to stray from discussing the Sabbath specifically, the general idea as to why these laws have been abolished is that they were prophetic, essentially in a symbolic way, of things which Christ has now fulfilled. But this is one of those areas of theology over which there is disagreement. Some say that laws like the Sabbath were specifically for Israel only, and that's why they no longer apply. But I can't reconcile that with Jesus' words that "The Sabbath was made for man." (Mark 2:27). Others will say that we should, (and do) observe the Sabbath, but on Sunday instead of Saturday. However, the Sabbath cannot be any other day than the end of the week, for “in six days the Lord created heaven and earth … and rested the seventh day.” Whether or not Sunday should be a significant day for Christians is a completely separate matter to the Sabbath; it simply cannot be “the Sabbath moved to a different day” because that’s not actually possible.

Well, my understanding is this; that through the revelation of the New Testament Scriptures, we should live according to the “spirit of the law”. In a law such as “Do not murder”, for example, the spirit of the law is to not so much as hate anyone, let alone take hatred so far as to kill someone. The law of “Do not murder” teaches us about how we should feel towards others. Laws have this teaching aspect to them, which is why Paul says that the Old Testament law was “like a schoolmaster” (in the King James), or “guardian” (in the ESV, but the image is in fact the same). The Sabbath is no different in that it teaches us something. Paul goes on to say that we are no longer under that schoolmaster. The lessons taught by the law no longer need to be taught necessarily through the practice of those laws because we now have the New Testament revelation and the Spirit of God. Rather, I believe we are to apply the teaching of all of the Mosaic laws. To apply the teaching of “Do not murder” means I will love my neighbour and, as a result of love, I won’t murder. But to apply what is really being taught by the Sabbath law... There is a clear moral aspect to the Sabbath law; that any employer should allow their employees to have a break. But further, as we discussed yesterday, the Sabbath was to teach us that God would have us rest from our own work so that we might focus on Him. Rather than try to do this religiously on a particular day, we understand that God should be central to our lives every day. The Sabbath is about remembering the future hope of redemption for all Creation; it was like one day in the week in which we could envisage the future "New Earth" when the curse, which causes us to labour for our needs, will be lifted. But the longing of Christ’s return to redeem us from the curse on Creation should affect our lives and our thoughts every day. A schoolmaster reprimands a student for breaking rules like "don't talk in class", but as adults we don't get in such serious trouble for talking during business meetings, for example. The schoolmaster was stricter because we were immature. Now, however, with New Testament revelation and the Spirit of God given to us, we no longer need such "strictness" as we find in the Mosaic Law.

Now, I suppose that it's common for married couples to have a “date night”, on which they make sure to allocate time for one another. This is what the Sabbath is like for man. But would a man or a woman really be content if “date night” were the only time their husband or wife acknowledged them? No, we understand that the Sabbath is a good practice, but it's not something that should be atypical of every day life. Paul writes this...

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:5-6)

Here, I believe Paul is speaking of Jews who have become Christians but continue to observe the Sabbath and the various food restrictions of the Jews. Paul is saying that we shouldn't be upset about that, and that neither should those Jews be upset because other Christians aren't observing the Sabbath or the food restrictions. So long as we're doing it “in honor of the Lord”, we are free to allocate a whole day to His honor if we want to. What's important is the spirit of the law. If we find that our strict observance of our special Sabbath day causes us to be unkind by turning people away from us, or to fail to meet the needs of others, then we're not really obeying the spirit of the law at all. The works of the Lord, (justice, mercy, faithfulness, etc) are to be done on the Sabbath. And if we have this “special day”, but forget about God in our daily activities for the rest of the week, we fail to understand the spirit of the law in that too.

And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

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