Sabbath in the New Testament
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Continuity Between Judaism and Christianity

Sabbath keeping in the New Testament

Questions about the Sabbath in the Old Testament

Questions About the Sabbath in the New Testament

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THE SABBATH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS

Chapter 5

SABBATHKEEPING IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University

A PERSONAL NOTE: Historically most Christians have believed that that the Sabbath was either abrogated by Christ or transferred to Sunday by the Apostolic Church. I examine these views in my book The Sabbath in the New Testament, where I submit four basic reasons for believing in the permanence of the principle and practice of Sabbathkeeping in the New Testament. This essay presents my fourth reason and is found in chapter 5 of the book.

My fourth reason for believing in the permanence of the principle and practice of Sabbathkeeping is found in the New Testament allusions to the fact and manner of its observance.

This chapter briefly examines both the implicit and explicit indications of the practice of Sabbathkeeping in New Testament times. It will be shown, perhaps to the surprise of some who believe otherwise, that New Testament believers observed the Sabbath, though with a new meaning and in a new manner.

I. THE FACT OF SABBATHKEEPING

Implicit Indications. The New Testament provides both implicit and explicit indications of the existence of Sabbathkeeping in the Christian communities. Implicitly, it is suggested by the unusual coverage given by the Evangelists to the Sabbath ministry of Jesus.

It is generally recognized today that the Gospels were composed not as mere biographies of Christ’s life but as theological handbooks to help promote the Christian faith. The selection that the Evangelists made of what Jesus said and did was determined by the prevailing concerns of their time.

The fact that the Evangelists report no less than seven Sabbath healing episodes in addition to the ensuing controversies1 indicates the great importance attached to Sabbathkeeping in their respective communities at the time they wrote their Gospels. The Sabbath example and teaching of Jesus received ample coverage because they provided for those young Christian communities the norm by which to determine the new meaning and manner of Sabbath observance.

Explicit Indications. Several explicit indications of Sabbathkeeping can be seen in the Gospels. Matthew, for example, explains that the "disciples were hungry" (12:1) on the Sabbath when they plucked ears of corn. The Evangelist’s concern to explain that the disciples did not carelessly break the Sabbath suggests that, as Gerhard Barth writes, "in Matthew’s congregation the Sabbath was still kept, but not in the same strict sense as in the Rabbinate."2

Christ’s Warning Regarding the Sabbath. Another indication of Sabbathkeeping is found in Christ’s unique warning regarding the destruction of Jerusalem: "Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath" (Matt 24:20). The fact that the Sabbath is here mentioned not polemically, but incidentally as a factor unfavorable to a flight of Christians from Jerusalem, implies on the one hand that Christ did not foresee its substitution with another day of worship, and on the other hand that, as stated by A. W. Argyle, "the Sabbath was still observed by Jewish Christians when Matthew wrote."3

The Example of the Women. Luke provides a significant indication of Sabbathkeeping in his Passion narrative. He describes how the women followed their Lord to the Cross at the risk of their lives. After seeing their Lord laid in the tomb, they hastened home to "prepare spices and ointments" because "the sabbath was beginning" (Luke 23:54-55).

It is noteworthy that in spite of their devotion to their Master, the women felt they could not proceed to embalm His body, because this would have meant violating the Sabbath. Thus "on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment" (Luke 23:56) and then at early dawn on the first day of the week they went to the tomb to continue their work. The fact that Luke takes pains to report that the women felt that they could not violate the Sabbath even to give honor to their dead Master, is indicative of the high regard in which the Sabbath was held at the time of his writing.

The Example of Paul. Luke refers repeatedly to Paul’s custom of teaching and worshiping on the Sabbath in the synagogue. After the martyrdom of Stephen, Paul went searching for Christians in the Synagogues of Damascus (Acts 9:2; 22:19), which would imply that they still attended Sabbath services.

In his later ministry Paul "as was his custom" (Acts 17:2) met regularly on the Sabbath in synagogues or open air, not only with the Jews (Acts 13:14; 17:2; 18:4) but also with the Gentiles (Acts 13:44; 16:13; 18:4). This indicates that no radical Christian separation had yet occurred from Jewish places and times of worship.

The Curse of the Christians. It is impossible to determine how long Christians continued to attend Sabbath services at the synagogue. We know that some of them still attended synagogue services by the end of the first century, because at that time rabbinical authorities introduced a test to detect their presence in the synagogue.4

The test consisted in a curse that was incorporated in the daily prayer—Shemoneh Esreh—and was to be pronounced against the Christians by any participant in the synagogue service. The function of the curse was to bar the Christians’ presence and/or participation in the synagogue services. The obvious implication is that some Christians still attended Sabbath services at the synagogue.

The Nazarenes. A significant evidence of the practice of Sabbathkeeping among primitive Palestinian Christians is provided by the testimony of Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (c. A. D. 315-403), regarding the Jewish Christian sect of the Nazarenes. The Bishop, a native of Palestine, explains that the Nazarenes were the direct descendants of the Christian community of Jerusalem which migrated to Pella prior to the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem.5

In spite of Epiphanius’ attempt to treat the Nazarenes as "heretics" because "they practice the customs and doctrines prescribed by the Jewish law," nothing heretical about them appears in the rather extensive account he gives of their beliefs. The basic difference between Nazarenes and the "true Christians" is, according to Epiphanius, the fact that the former "fulfill till now such Jewish rites as the circumcision and the Sabbath."6 The latter practices hardly qualify the Nazarenes as "heretics" since they were held by the primitive Jerusalem Church.

The fact that the Nazarenes, who represent the direct descendants of the Jerusalem Church, retained Sabbathkeeping as one of their distinguishing characteristics until at least the fourth century shows convincingly that the Jerusalem Church observed the Sabbath during the apostolic age. This fact discredits any attempt to make the Jerusalem church the pioneer of Sundaykeeping.

Conclusion. The foregoing indications make it abundantly clear that New Testament believers continued the practice of Sabbathkeeping. The necessity to change the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday arose after the end of the apostolic age in the early part of the second century. The political, social, pagan, and religious factors which have contributed to this change are examined at length in my book From Sabbath to Sunday.

II. THE MANNER OF SABBATHKEEPING

New Worship Places. How did New Testament believers observe the Sabbath? Initially most Christians attended Sabbath services at the Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:14, 43, 44; 17:2; 18:4). Gradually, however, Christians established their own places of worship.

Matthew suggests that the process of separation had already begun at the time of his writing, because he speaks of Christ entering "their synagogue" (Matt 12:9).7 The pronoun "their" suggests that the Matthean community as a whole no longer shared in the Sabbath services at the Jewish synagogue by the time the Gospel was written. Presumably they had organized their own meeting places of worship by then.

The distinction in Sabbathkeeping between the Christian and the Jewish communities soon became not only topological but also theological. The various Sabbath pericopes reported in the Gospels reflect the existence of an ongoing controversy between the Christian congregations and the Jewish synagogues, which in some cases may have been located across the street from one another.

The controversy centered primarily on the manner of Sabbathkeeping. Was the day to be observed primarily as "sacrifice," that is, as an outward fulfillment of the Sabbath law? Or was the Sabbath to be observed as "mercy," that is, as an occasion to show compassion and do good to those in need? (Matt 12:7).

A Day to Do Good. To defend the Christian understanding of Sabbathkeeping as a day to celebrate Messianic redemption by showing "mercy" and doing "good" to those in need, the Evangelists appeal to the example and teaching of Jesus. For example, in the healing of the crippled woman, Luke contrasts two different concepts of Sabbathkeeping: that of the Ruler of the synagogue versus that of Christ. For the Ruler, the Sabbath consisted of rules to obey rather than people to love (Luke 13:14). For Christ, the Sabbath was a day to bring physical and spiritual liberation to needy people (Luke 13:12, 16).

Christ challenged the Ruler’s misconception by appealing to the accepted customs of watering animals on the Sabbath. If the daily needs of animals could be met on the Sabbath, how much more the needs of "a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years"! Shouldn’t she "be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?" (Luke 13:16).

A Day to Save. This humanitarian understanding of the Sabbath is expressed also in the episode of the healing of the man with the withered hand, reported by all the three Synoptics (Mark 3:1-6; Matt 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11). In this instance, Jesus responds to the testing question posed by a deputation of Scribes and Pharisees, regarding the legitimacy of healing on the Sabbath by asking a question of principle: "Is it lawful on the sabbath, to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" (Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9).

It is noteworthy that in both Mark and Luke Christ substitutes for the verb "to heal" (therapeuein) , used in the question, the verbs "to do good" (agathopoiein) and "to save" (sozein). The reason for this change is Christ’s concern to include not one type but all kinds of benevolent activities within the intention of the Sabbath law. Such a broad interpretation of the function of the Sabbath finds no parallel in rabbinic concessions.

A Day of Benevolent Service. According to Matthew, Christ illustrated the principle of Sabbathkeeping as a time of benevolent service by adding a second question containing a concrete example: "What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep!" (Matt 12:11-12).8 Both by the question of principle and by its illustration, Christ reveals the original value of the Sabbath, as a day to honor God by showing concern and compassion for others.

Unfortunately, with the accumulation of restrictions (Mark 7:9), the observance of the day had been reduced to a legalistic religiosity rather than an opportunity to offer loving service to the Creator-Redeemer by serving needy fellow beings. The believer who on the Sabbath experiences the blessing of salvation will automatically be moved "to save" and not "to kill" others.

Christ’s accusers, by failing to show concern for the physical and spiritual well-being of others on the Sabbath, revealed their defective understanding and experience of God’s Holy Day. Rather than celebrating God’s goodness on the Sabbath by being involved in a saving ministry, they engaged in destructive efforts, looking for faults and devising methods to kill Christ (Mark 3:2-6).

Understanding or Misunderstanding? The new humanitarian value which Christ placed upon the Sabbath is expressed in Matthew with uncompromising positiveness: "So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (Matt 12:12). Unable to accept such a positive interpretation of the Sabbath, Willy Rordorf accuses Matthew of "beginning the moralistic misunderstanding of Jesus’ attitude toward the Sabbath."9

Is it fair for a modern scholar to charge a Gospel Writer with misunderstanding Christ’s teaching regarding the Sabbath? Even if the trustworthiness of Matthew’s report could be discredited, does not his interpretation still represent the view of an Apostle and of his community?

Is not Matthew’s understanding of the Sabbath as a day "to do good" (Matt 12:12) and to show "mercy" rather than religiosity (Matt 12:7) fully shared by the other three Gospels? In both Mark and Luke, Christ is cited as saying the same thing by means of a rhetorical question, precisely that on the Sabbath it is lawful "to do good" and "to save" (Mark 3:4; Luke 6:9).

In Luke, Christ is reported as saying that the Sabbath is the day to loose human beings from physical and spiritual bonds (Luke 13:12,16). In John, Christ invites His followers to share on the Sabbath in the divine redemptive activity (John 9:4; 5:17; 7:22-23). Therefore, the unanimous view of the Gospels is that Christ presented the Sabbath as a time to serve God especially by rendering loving service to human needs.

A New Christian Understanding. The new Christian understanding of the Sabbath as a time not of passive idleness, but of active, loving service to needy souls, represents a radical departure from contemporary Jewish Sabbathkeeping. This is attested also in an early document, known as the Epistle to Diognetus (dates between A. D. 130-200), where the Jews are charged with "speaking falsely of God" because they claim that "He [God] forbade us to do what is good on the Sabbath-days—how is not this impious?"10

The positive humanitarian understanding of Sabbathkeeping is rooted in Christ’s fulfillment of the redemptive typology of the Sabbath, which we found brought out in the Gospels in several ways. Viewing the rest and redemption typified by the Old Testament Sabbath as realized by Christ’s redemptive mission, New Testament believers regarded Sabbathkeeping as a day to celebrate and experience the Messianic redemption-rest by showing "mercy" and doing "good" to those in need. What this means to us Christians today is that on and through the Sabbath we celebrate Christ’s creative and redemptive accomplishments by acting redemptively toward others.

III. CONCLUSION

In the last four chapters I have submitted indications for the permanence of the principle and practice of Sabbathkeeping in the New Testament. The first reason, explained in chapter 2, is that Sabbathkeeping is implied in the New Testament by the strong perception of continuity with the Old Testament religious heritage.

The second reason, presented in chapter 3, is that the New Testament views the Sabbath not as a Mosaic ordinance for the Jews but as a creation institution for mankind. The third reason, submitted in chapter 4, is that the New Testament sees the coming of Christ not as the termination but as the actualization, the realization of the redemptive typology of the Sabbath. In the light of the Cross, the Sabbath memorializes not only God’s creative but also His redemptive accomplishments for mankind.

The fourth reason, discussed in chapter 5, is that the New Testament offers both implicit and explicit indications regarding the fact and manner of Sabbathkeeping. My conclusion then is that the New Testament views the principle and practice of Sabbathkeeping, not as being abrogated or transferred to Sunday, but as having permanent validity and value for Christians. The Sabbath is not nullified but clarified by Christ’s teaching and saving ministry.

NOTES ON CHAPTER V

1. Matt 12:1-14; Mark 1:21-34; 2:23-28; 3:1-6; Luke 4:16-21; 4:31-41; 6:1-11; 13:10-17; John 5:1-47; 9:1-41.

2. Gerhard Barth, Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew (London, 1963), p. 81; cf. also pp. 79, 83, 163, 244.

3. A. W. Argyle, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, 1963), p. 183. Similarly E. Lohse remarks, "Matt 24:20 offers an example of the keeping of the Sabbath by Jewish Christians" ("Sabbaton," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel, [Grand Rapids, 1968], vol. 7, p. 29).

4. My discussion of the malediction of the Christians is found in From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome, 1977), pp. 157-159.

5. Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses 29, 7, Patrologia Graeca 42, 402. My treatment of the Nazarenes is found in From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome, 1977), pp. 156-157.

6. See n. 5.

7. Emphasis supplied.

8. Emphasis supplied.

9. Willy Rordorf, Sunday: The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church (Philadelphia, 1968), p. 68.

10. Epistle to Diognetus 4, 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, 1973 reprint), vol. 1, p. 26.


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