I have been receiving an enormous amount of questions over the past several weeks about the Bible and the Christian life from people inside and outside of our church. I have been in process of answering them, but have recently realized it is going to take forever to get to all of these questions. So I have brought in some help.
I asked a friend of mine from college, Bryan Hodge, to help me answer some of these questions over the next couple of weeks or months. Bryan and I were friends at Moody Bible Institute and then were roommates after we graduated. From the time that we met, I was in awe of his knowledge of the Scriptures. If you are looking for some really thoughtful articles on theology and faith, I would highly suggest that you check out his blog, Theological Sushi. It will make you think more deeply about life.
Matthew 22:37-40, I've heard that this Scripture is kind of a summary of the 10 Commandments in that they express love towards God and love towards your neighbor. Why was the Sabbath included as part of the 10 Commandments? Or maybe what is its significance and how is it relevant today? To which half does it belong? Love towards God or love towards neighbor?
The Sabbath law was the law that commanded the Israelites to do no work on the seventh day of the week, i.e., Saturday. The word “sabbath” is derived from the Hebrew šabbat, which literally means “seventh,” but is tied to the idea of rest. The punishment for not obeying the Sabbath was stoning, so we see that God was very concerned about the Israelites obeying it.
This concern was rooted in what the Sabbath conveyed. We first see the Sabbath being observed by God in the creation account of Genesis 2:2–3, which gives us the meaning of the Sabbath event. In creation, God overcomes the chaos of a humanless world by making the world a place that can be inhabited by humans and is supportive of human life. He then rests, which in the ancient Near Eastern world conveyed that He has complete control over all adverse forces (whether natural or supernatural). The rest, then, signifies His sovereignty.
The Sabbath is then placed as an observance of the Israelites, once God has delivered them from Egypt (i.e., the creation of the nation of Israel), which is another major creation event displaying God’s sovereignty over chaotic forces (i.e., the Egyptians and their demonic gods) in order that Israel might always convey the idea that God is sovereign over them. To obey the Sabbath, then, was to convey that YHWH is God and King over Israel, as He has everything under control, including their well being and holiness (Exod 31:13–17). To disobey the Sabbath law was to convey the exact opposite: that God is not in control, He is not the sovereign king, other forces are greater, and hence, we must work to overcome them ourselves each and every day, including the Sabbath (i.e., we need to work on this day like every other nation, rather than be distinct in our practice of it). Hence, the man who is found picking up sticks on the Sabbath is executed for it, as his actions are both apostate toward God and treasonous to the people of Israel. Instead, the Sabbath is practiced by Israelites as a way for them to humble themselves, rather than thinking they can control their situations themselves, and trust in God (Lev 16:31).
Now, having established what the Sabbath is, we need to ask how it is relevant for us, and whether we should observe it too. It’s important first to note, however, that Israelites were to stay in their tents, in their own homes, during the Sabbath. It wasn’t a time to gather in the assembly, so people who make the argument that we should meet on Saturday instead of Sunday are not paying attention to what is being said. This may be a time of family gathering, but not the gathering of the assembly. There are exceptions to this, such as the high Sabbath days, which do not always fall on Saturdays, but are the equivalent to a religious holiday. For the priests, the Sabbath signified the time to change the temple watch, another act of faith that God would keep His sanctuary and the community safe even in between watches. The Sabbath began from what we would consider Friday evening and ended Saturday evening (Lev 23:32).
One thing we need to remember is that this is an everlasting covenant for the Israelites (Lev 24:8). The same is said of the Aaronic priesthood (v. 5). So we are speaking about something specifically given to Israel. For Christians, our duty now is to understand whether we are to adopt this law into new covenant practice, or simply adopt the principle of the Sabbath into our thinking, with the external forms of applying the principle treated by the individual as an exercise of each Christian or Christian community’s freedom in Christ. Paul’s answer seems to be that this is left to our own discretion and is a part of our freedom in Christ from law (Rom 14:4–12). Notice in this passage that Paul mentions that some choose to see every day the same, but all, whether they observe some days as higher than others, seek to honor Christ as Lord and acknowledge His sovereignty over them.
This is the principle that Christians must apply from the law, but the actual law itself is never repeated in the New Testament along with the other commandments that are continually repeated for us, precisely, because we are not under law, but under grace. Hence, we are free to seek the Lord through the principles of something like the Sabbath without needing to fulfill some external law or practice in order to do it. As Christians, Paul says, all of us are seeking to receive Christ as Lord over our lives more and more, regardless of the amoral created things (e.g., holy days, types of food and drink, etc.) through which we choose to express that. The New Testament is much more concerned that we all express His lordship over us through obedience to His commands to love God and one another, as that is the theology of the law that then produces the morality that is found in the law. Paul’s point is that this desire to lift Christ up and love God and others does not automatically produce an observance of a particular day, however, as that is a mere Old Testament picture for what our life in eternity will be like (i.e., complete peace and no concern that evil will overtake our houses, as we trust completely in God as sovereign over all things).
Hence, all of the commandments are listed in the New Testament except the Sabbath, because it is the Sabbath principle, not the external observance of a particular day, that is proclaimed in the very message of the gospel and throughout the whole counsel of God, that says God is sovereign, He has overcome chaos through Jesus Christ our Lord, and He has done so to make us a holy people for Himself. Our actual Sabbath rest will be when we enter His presence (Heb 3:16–4:11). Hence, let us trust in Him as our sovereign in all that we do, whether we choose to convey that on a particular day or celebrate it through some ceremony every day. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s; and that is the eternal principle of the Sabbath that we are to remember, as His people, for all time. In remembering this, we love God and neighbor, as every action speaks to our exaltation of God over chaos, and proclaims the hope of His peace to all who would enter it.