Nightline’s series on the Ten Commandments continues with a look at the Sabbath command, and it raises a question that often arises: Do Christians celebrate “Sabbath”? Let’s begin with the command itself, in both versions in the Old Testament, and then I want to address our question.
Exodus 20:8 “Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. 20:9 For six days you may labor and do all your work, 20:10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates. 20:11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.
Deuteronomy 5:12 Be careful to observe the Sabbath day just as the Lord your God has commanded you. 5:13 You are to work and do all your tasks in six days, 5:14 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. On that day you must not do any work, you, your son, your daughter, your male slave, your female slave, your ox, your donkey, any other animal, or the foreigner who lives with you, so that your male and female slaves, like yourself, may have rest. 5:15 Recall that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there by strength and power. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
So, what does this all mean (for us)?
First, “Sabbath” was a day of rest and was not a day of “worship” together as is done in the Christian Sunday. But, a careful reading of Genesis 1 shows that the Sabbath is the day the Lord takes up habitation in the Cosmic Temple — the world — and so the seventh day of Creation should not be seen simply as relaxation from work. God’s rest is more than relaxation; it is Shalom — it is God’s world being what it was intended to be. We only “do Sabbath” well when we dwell in the world as God intended it to be. The earliest Christians had a Sabbath (Saturday) and worship (Sunday, the Lord’s day).
Second, there’s more: Jesus cut up the Ten Commandments into love God commands and love other commands. The Sabbath was traditionally understood as a day of sanctity toward God, a day wherein one did not work at all. Hence, it became a day where focus on God was paramount … and Jesus saw a crack. Some were so devoted to Sabbath’s sanctity that they failed to show mercy to those in need.
Herein lies the genius of Jesus when it comes to Sabbath: “rest” means dwelling in the world as God would have it. That means loving God (worship, obedience, etc) and loving others (doing good on Sabbath). So, for Jesus, the Sabbath straddles the love God commands and the love others commands.
Matthew 12:1 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on a Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick heads of wheat and eat them. 12:2 But when the Pharisees saw this they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is against the law to do on the Sabbath.” 12:3 He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry – 12:4 how he entered the house of God and they ate the sacred bread, which was against the law for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests? 12:5 Or have you not read in the law that the priests in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are not guilty? 12:6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 12:7 If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 12:8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
12:9 Then Jesus left that place and entered their synagogue. 12:10 A man was there who had a withered hand. And they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” so that they could accuse him. 12:11 He said to them, “Would not any one of you, if he had one sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath, take hold of it and lift it out? 12:12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 12:13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and it was restored, as healthy as the other. 12:14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted against him, as to how they could assassinate him.
On top of the Sabbath being a day of doing good — toward God in worship and love and obedience and toward others in compassion and love and justice — the earliest Christians, third, eventually swallowed up the Sabbath into Sunday, a day of worshiping together on a day that memorialized the resurrection. So, for the Christian, Sabbath also signifies the new order, the new day of Jesus, the day when BC changed to AD. As ancient Israel, in Deuteronomy, saw the Sabbath as the result of being liberated from slavery, so the Christians saw Sunday as the day of resurrection, the day when they had been liberated from sin and death.