1. Much controversy has surrounded the interpretation and understanding of the Fourth Commandment.

2. When the Jews entered Canaan the seven-day was already known but they were the ones who exalted the seventh day into the most sacred of all days. The prominence given to the seventh day was linked to the creation story of Genesis: ‘So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3).  The Sabbath was the last day of the seven-day week commemorating Yahweh’s rest from his work of creation. It was a day for people to rest.

3. Shabbat is the Hebrew word for Sabbath. It comes from the Hebrew verb shavat which means ‘to rest,” “to desist from labour.” The root meaning of Sabbath shows that it means “a day of ceasing,” a day of rest from that which is normally done on weekdays. Contrary to popular thought it does not mean seventh. Sabbath means rest, a cession from labour.

4. The word Sabbath first appeared in the manna story in Exodus. “Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning” (Exodus 16:23).

5. Contemporary thinking would see the fourth commandment as a piece of social legislation. As it stands, it is not a religious regulation for enforcement. It does not address the issue of worship or religious services. It is simply a day of rest. What does it say?

Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.    Exodus 20:8-11

6. The requirement to rest is a humanitarian principle. It should not have been interpreted as a legal injunction, which eventually led to the commandment becoming a legal document. Problems arose as the Jews tried to interpret ‘work’ which was forbidden on the Sabbath.

7. All work was forbidden, the prohibition including strangers as well as Israelites, beasts as well as men (Exodus 20:8-10; 31:13-17; Deuteronomy 5:12-14). The following particular actions are mentioned as forbidden: cooking (Exodus 16:23,); gathering manna (16: 26.); plowing and reaping (34: 21); lighting a fire (for cooking, 35: 3); gathering wood (Numbers 15:32); carrying burdens (Jeremiah 17:21-22); pressing grapes, bringing in sheaves, and loading animals (Nehemiah 13:15); and trading. Traveling, at least with a religious object, was not forbidden, the prohibition of Exodus 16: 29, referring only to leaving the camp to gather food; it is implied in the institution of holy assemblies (Leviticus 23:2-3), and was customary in the time of the kings (2 Kings 4:23). At a later period, however, all movement was restricted to a distance of 2000 cubits (between five and six furlongs-less than a mile), or a "Sabbath day's journey" (Acts 1:12).

8. A careful reading of the Old Testament would reveal that the Sabbath was constantly violated.  As time went by a meticulous interpretation and observance, which went far beyond what, was required of the Sabbath, was enforced. Jewish law had 39 classifications of work that were forbidden; each category had its own infinite sub-divisions. This trivialised the Sabbath observance and made it a burden. To pluck two ears of wheat was considered as reaping, while to rub them was a species of threshing (cf. Matthew 12:1-2; Mark 2:23-24; Luke 6:1-2). To carry an object of the weight of a fig was carrying a burden; hence to carry a bed (John 5:10) was a gross breach of the Sabbath. It was unlawful to cure on the Sabbath, or to apply a remedy unless life was endangered (Matthew 12:10; Mark 3:2; Luke 6:7). It was even forbidden to use a medicament the preceding day if it produced its effect on the Sabbath. There was also a debate as it related to eating eggs that were laid on the Sabbath.

9. The Jews trivialised the Sabbath. William Barclay writes:” Inevitably the whole character of the Sabbath changed. Instead of being a day designed to protect the rights and health and the welfare of the working man, it became a day of prohibitions, with the lists of things which might not be done stretching out into an almost endless series of rules and regulations.”

The purpose of the Sabbath
10. The Sabbath was a sign to Israel of the Mosaic covenant. It was meant to be a constant reminder of the covenant God had made with Moses.

Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant.  It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed  (Exodus 31:16-17; Ezekiel 20:12; Nehemiah 9:14).

11. Another purpose behind the Sabbath command was to remind the children of Israel that they were delivered from the slavery of Egypt by Yahweh.

You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:15).

12. Yahweh requires the Israelites to keep the Sabbath in order to remember that they had been slaves in Egypt and that God delivered them!  The Sabbath was given only to the Israelites.

13. It is of interest to note that nowhere in the Old Testament are the Gentile nations commanded to observe the Sabbath or condemned for failing to do so. If the Sabbath was meant to be a universal principle why wasn’t it commanded of the other nations?

14. The institution of the Sabbath was a statue only for the Israelites. It was not a universal principle and it formed part of the Law that regulated and described the Jews relationship with Yahweh. The Law was abolished with the coming of Jesus Christ and it is longer in effect. The Sabbath is no longer a requirement to be observed by the Jews and it has no place in Christianity. It is not a requirement to be observed by Christians. Christians cannot observe the Sabbath regulation as it was lived under the Old Covenant.  We are part of the New Covenant and we are saved by grace and not by works of the Law. Anyone who rightly understands Paul’s reasoning in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians cannot honestly teach that Christians are to keep the Jewish Sabbath. Such teaching makes a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world. The Sabbath is not for Christians.

15. The New Testament never commands Christians to observe the Sabbath. One cannot point to any passage, which says that Christians are to observe the Jewish Sabbath. When it does speak of worship it always mentions the ‘first day’ as the time when Christians assemble for worship and fellowship.

16. The early church had a serious problem as to what was required of Gentiles who became Christians. Some Jewish people were insisting that Gentiles should observe Jewish customs and discipline. This dispute almost split the early church and the Council of Jerusalem was asked to settle the issue. The Council did not impose the Sabbath as a requirement. This was its decision:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell (Acts 15:28-29).

17. St. Paul dealt with the problem of the Sabbath and the observance of certain festivals and holidays. There are three passages that shed light on Paul’s thinking.  In these passages St. Paul does not subscribe to any teaching requiring persons to observe the Jewish Sabbath. Paul condemns those who observe days and seasons and years.  He teaches that God does not expect us to observe special days including the Sabbath.

You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!  I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain (Galatians 4:10-11)

18. St. Paul advises that Christians must not get involved in ‘foolish’ arguments about questions of food and drink, festivals and holy days. His advice to the Colossians is interesting:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17).

19. Here the Sabbath is defined as a shadow, the reality is Jesus Christ. Jesus is our Sabbath.

20. Finally, St. Paul’s teaching in Romans is very helpful for a right understanding of the early Christians attitude to the Sabbath. The person who is strong in faith does not require any special holy day but will see all days as holy. If the Jewish Sabbath were a requirement to be observed by Christians, Paul would not have given the Romans a choice. St. Paul’s instruction on this matter is important: each individual must be convinced in his or her own mind which day he or she will observe for the Lord.

One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind.  He, who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honour of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honour of the Lord and gives thanks to God Romans 14:5-6)

21. Must Christians keep the Sabbath? NO! The Sabbath was given to the Jews and was part of the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses was abolished with the death of Christ and its observance is now obsolete. The Sabbath is not part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and both Jews and Gentiles are excused from its observance. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is based on faith and not works of the law. If we observe the Jewish Sabbath we are still living under the Law, but we are not under the Law. The Sabbath as a Jewish observance has no place in Christian thought.

22. There is ample evidence in the New Testament to show that over a period of time the first day of the week became the day when Christians met for worship and fellowship.

23. Some people teach that the Emperor Constantine changed the Sabbath. This is totally untrue. Constantine only made Sunday a legal holiday for the Christians who were already observing it as their holy day. People who continue to argue that Constantine changed the day are intellectually dishonest.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).

23. Some people teach that the Emperor Constantine changed the Sabbath. This is totally untrue. Constantine only made Sunday a legal holiday for the Christians who were already observing it as their holy day. People who continue to argue that Constantine changed the day are intellectually dishonest.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Galatians 5:1).
 

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