The Sabbath

The laws of the Old Testament may generally be divided into two categories: those that are defined to remind the Jew of some aspect of their religious lives and those that are practical instructions from our divine maker as to how our societal life is to be managed. I believe the Sabbath is unusual, if not unique, in being a vital member of both of these categories. To view the Sabbath as the possession of purely the religious sphere leads to a distortion of its purpose as seen in Jewish custom at the time our Lord was upon the earth. Conversely to view it as purely pragmatic can easily confuse the Sabbath with the New Testament "Lord's Day" which is totally different but has a similar practical application. In this paper I aim to expound my view of the correct interpretation of the Sabbath and to both support and contrast that view to those of the commentators.

The inauguration of the Sabbath in the biblical account occurs in Ex 20:8 as one of the Ten Commandments and in terms of length, placing and detail provided is in some respects the centerpiece of them. Notwithstanding many of the commentators[1] place the original institution of the Sabbath back in Gen 2:2,3. Those commentators typically go on to point out that Noah sent the raven and doves from the ark at seven day intervals, that Jacob had to wait seven days for Rachel, and most importantly that in Ex 16:23 the Sabbath is actually known by that name and explicitly that manna was not to be gathered upon it.

However, even the conservative commentators are forced to agree that the meaning of the Sabbath as revealed to the Jew was significantly magnified in comparison to the weekly routine that appears to have been implemented prior to Moses. As Easton points out Ex 35:2,3 shows that observation of the Sabbath had become a serious, even life threatening, issue. Lev 23:3 shows that observation of the Sabbath was now not simply pragmatic or even societal but was intricately interwoven with the religious and sacrificial system within the Jewish economy.

In fact the Sabbath became so entwined within the Jewish faith that it became a litmus test and almost a pre-condition of Judaism. In Isa 56:2-7 we find that Jews, Eunuchs[2] and strangers were all able to gain acceptance with God through the observation of the Sabbath. Isa 58:13,14 even goes as far to suggest that it is the trampling of the Sabbath day that was at least partially responsible for the exile. Certainly in the Jews' mind this link was there; we find that Nehemiah set a guard on the gate of Jerusalem to prevent burdens being brought in on the Sabbath day[3].

Obviously a key question for those of us who are not Jewish is to what extent the latter development of the Sabbath applies to us. Put another way, was the development under the Jews generally applicable or specific to Judaism. Smith gives us the answer by showing that the Sabbath the Jews were being asked to recognize had two different bases. In Ex 20 the basis is the traditionally recognized one of the Lord having rested upon His seventh day of labor. However in De 5:15 the basis is given as the flight from Egypt. This is extremely significant as this is a peculiarly Jewish basis. The rest of us, pictured in Egypt, were the antagonist in this scene. Therefore for us to recognize the Jewish Sabbath is for us to recall our battle against the forces of Jehovah Himself.

Smith points out that the distinctive nature of the Jewish Sabbath was actually deliberate; in Ex 31:12-17 and Eze 20:12 we are explicitly told that the Sabbath was to be a sign between God and the Jew that he sanctified them. Sanctification at its' most literal means to set apart. Therefore we see that the strictness of the Jewish Sabbath was not simply practical; in fact we may almost go as far as to say it was deliberately somewhat impractical as it was designed to set the Jew apart from those around them. Note too that simple observance of a seven day week with a rest day would not have been adequate to distinguish the Jew as this pattern was already observed outside of Judaism[4].

Before we can adequately tackle a full interpretation of the Sabbath as presented in Mark chapter 2 we first have to explore a notion presented by a number of commentators; the Christian Sabbath. The Christian Sabbath concept is explained by the American Tract Society Dictionary although the notion of it appears in many places. The idea is that the Lord through His authority over the Sabbath[5] changed the Sabbath from the last day of the week (Saturday) to the first (Sunday). The first day of the week clearly was set apart in early Christian thought; it was a day for church meetings, the collection of the tithe[6], the day of the Lord's resurrection and for John the day he received the Revelation.

If the Lord's Day[7] is really a 'remodeled Sabbath' then clearly the nature of the remodeling is crucial. Matthew Henry states in his commentary notes:

The sabbath is a sacred and Divine institution; a privilege and benefit, not a task and drudgery. God never designed it to be a burden to us, therefore we must not make it so to ourselves. The sabbath was instituted for the good of mankind, as living in society, having many wants and troubles, preparing for a state of happiness or misery. Man was not made for the sabbath, as if his keeping it could be of service to God, nor was he commanded to keep its outward observances to his real hurt. Every observance respecting it, is to be interpreted by the rule of mercy.

In essence Henry is suggesting that the Sabbath should, with due spiritual concern, be watered down from the presentation given of it in the Old Testament. Whilst the sentiments he expresses are laudable they do not really apply to the historic Jewish Sabbath. Clearly one was to keep the outward appearances of it and one could be stoned to death if one didn't which would obviously be to your real hurt. Specifically if someone was caught working on the Sabbath he was to be stoned and no mercy was to be shown.

The fourfold Gospel takes a slightly different approach. It essentially claims that the ordinances of the Sabbath could not be violated by normal mortal man but that the Lord of the Sabbath Himself had the right to make such 'violations' as he chose. Adam Clarke and Barnes both focus on the benefit that society reaps from a 7 day cycle with a day of rest and interpret the fact that the Sabbath was made for man as implying that the Sabbath is primarily a practical law and should thus be interpreted to benefit both the society and the individual.

In my opinion the commentators have backed themselves into a corner through their assumption that the Lord's Day and Sabbath are connected. There is no obvious reason for the connection to have been made. The Lord's Day is never referred to as the Sabbath. We know from Acts that at least some of the Jewish Christians still went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and also met with other believers on the Lord's Day. The Sabbath, or at least Jewish Sabbath was a societal and religious ordinance, it was to be kept within Jewish borders, not just by the Jews themselves. On the other hand there is no reference in scripture to the Lord's Day having been anything other than a day when the followers of the Lord met and worshipped. Again the Jewish Sabbath ends at sun-down; the meeting on the first day of the week could continue until midnight[8]. All in all the only real similarity between the Jewish Sabbath and the Lord's Day is that they both occur every seven days; but then again so does our garbage collection.

So, if we remove the shackles created when we try to make this a transitional passage towards a Christian Sabbath what is the Lord saying in Mark 2? I believe the key is to look at the extended example that the Lord gives; that of David taking the showbread. Note that the Pharisee's state that the disciples are behaving unlawfully; the Lord does not contradict them but points to another example of a past hero behaving in a manner which was, definitely, unlawful. I do not believe, on this occasion, the Lord was claiming they had misinterpreted the law; He was stating the law did not apply. What is less clear is why the Law did not apply in this case; I can think of three possible reasons:

  1. This is the Lord Jesus Christ and His followers; He is not bound by anything and therefore neither are they.
  2. The arrival of the Lord Jesus had already rendered Jewish law void.
  3. The law actually contained provision for Sabbath violation in the case of emergency.

Some of the commentators prefer interpretation 'c'. It does appear to fit for the case of David however there are problems with this interpretation. Firstly we are told the disciples were hungry; not starving. We are not told they had no other way to obtain food; it seems a little extreme to be claiming that moderate hunger is a reasonable excuse to violate a law carrying the death penalty. Further, David did something that was lawful only to priests; when his predecessor did that the throne and crown was taken away from his house. No such threat was made to David.

'b' is improbable as the law is generally seen as fulfilled in the Messiah's death and resurrection rather than incarnation.

This leaves us 'a'. David was able to break the law because he had a pure heart and therefore he was to be forgiven his sin. The son of God was able to break the law because it was His law to break. The very nature of the Sabbath may actually also suggest why He went to such seeming lengths to repeatedly do things upon it that were frowned upon. The Sabbath was a distinctive of Judaism; Christ was to remove the wall between Jew and Gentile. The Sabbath was a reminder of salvation from Egypt; Christ was to save us from death. The Sabbath, if broken, could cause the chosen people to be cast off; in Christ we cannot be cast off. Finally the Sabbath was a reminder that after six days God rested. Whilst the Lord was walking upon the Earth; God was no longer resting.

In conclusion, the pattern of six days of work followed by a day of rest is a template based upon the creative order that has permeated all successful cultures throughout history. This pattern was known to the Jews before the law was given to them. Notwithstanding Jewish law took this pattern and heightened and mandated it to the point where it was a fundamental and distinctive part of their life. The Lord showed that He was walking a different pathway and that strict sabbatic observance was not a requirement for Him or His followers.

In some ways the believers life today is easier than the Jews was; we do not have to observe a religious day and face death if we get it wrong. Conversely, the challenge facing us, is that we are to be distinctive, a salt and light to the earth, without the assistance of visible 'eccentric' behavior. As we go forward in His will, may we be a peculiar people, on all seven days of the week.


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