Should Christians Keep The Sabbath?
In 1808, Hugh Wylie was removed from membership in his local Presbyterian Church. What was his offence? Wylie opened the post office on Sunday and thus violated the fourth commandment.
For those of you who intend on spending this afternoon watching football playoffs on TV, you may be interested to know that it wasn’t until 1949 that the National Football League officially sanctioned Sunday games.
And what about today? What about keeping the Sabbath in 2004? Sadly, keeping the Sabbath has become a non-issue in the contemporary church. Many Christians have never even considered the Lord’s Day as a different day; a day specially designed by God to shape our lives.
Honestly, how often do you hear people, these days, talk about ‘keeping the Sabbath’? Not too often, I suspect. Many people would argue, ‘That was the old covenant; we are in the new covenant; that was then, and this is now.’
It is true that the change in covenants affects our application of the Sabbath law, but just because we execute and apply the law differently in the new covenant, does not mean that the principles behind these laws have been diminished or changed.
I am a bit surprised that Sabbath observance is a non-issue in the contemporary church given that our Lord had so much to say about the subject. As we look at Mark 2 and 3 this morning, we should also note what Jesus does not say about Sabbath observance.
“It happened that (Jesus) was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" And He said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?" Jesus said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. "So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."”
The Pharisees, known for their meticulous observance of the Mosaic Law, had witnessed Jesus' disciples breaking the Sabbath law. Mark makes this point clear when he mentions that the disciples "were picking" heads of grain, which was considered 'reaping'. Luke’s gospel also adds that the disciples were "rubbing (the grain) in their hands"(Lk. 6:1), which was considered 'threshing'.
The point being made by both gospel writers is that the disciples were, in fact, technically breaking the Sabbath law.
This point is further manifest by the fact that, when accused by the Pharisees, Jesus does not deny that His disciples broke the Sabbath. Jesus does not respond by telling the Pharisees that they were incorrect in their accusation, rather, He simply makes reference to when King David and his companions ate consecrated bread on a Sabbath. Using David as an example, Jesus even concedes that they engaged in an action that was "not lawful".
At first glance, this response may seem surprising; Jesus' logic appears to be like that of a child who, once corrected, exclaims 'But I saw him do it first!'
What point is Jesus trying to make here? Is it that Sabbath observance no longer applies? But Jesus does not say this. Jesus does not respond to the Pharisees by telling them that the Sabbath is now abolished. Jesus does not say that the Sabbath is now relaxed. Instead, what Jesus is doing is He is attempting to return Sabbath observance to its original and proper understanding.
Jesus points to one of the original intentions of the Sabbath when He says, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sake of the Sabbath"(2:27). That is to say that the Sabbath was instituted to benefit us, and not to burden us. The Pharisees had shackled themselves and others with a strict system of Sabbath observance that completely blurred the original intentions of the day.
In Matthew's account, we are told that the disciples were "hungry"(12:1)—they genuinely needed food. Appropriately then, Jesus refers us back to David and his companions and when they were genuinely hungry on the Sabbath. These 2 exceptions provide us with a clear principle: Genuine human need takes precedence over legalistic Sabbath observance. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sake of the Sabbath". The Sabbath has not been abolished; it has not become more relaxed; Jesus simply reminds us that the Sabbath observance should never be at the expense of genuine human need.
Jesus' final statement on this occasion also has great significance, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath". When we hear that Sabbath observance should not take precedence over human need, we might be tempted to think that the Sabbath is all about us. We must be careful, however, to balance the truth that "The Sabbath was made for man" with the truth that "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath". The Sabbath is concerned with humanity's welfare, no doubt, but the Sabbath is not about us. The Sabbath is about God. Our allegiance then, is not to a legalistic observance of a particular day; rather, our allegiance is to the "Lord of the Sabbath".
This is what the apostle Paul meant when he described the Sabbath day as "a mere shadow of what is to come", reminding the Colossians that "the substance (of the day) belongs to Christ"(Col. 2:16, 17). This does not mean that we set aside Sabbath observance in order to focus on Christ. More precisely, keeping the Sabbath helps us to focus on Christ.
This is where the Pharisees erred. The Pharisees saw Sabbath observance as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. The goal of Sabbath observance is to bring us into closer fellowship with God.
In our efforts to keep the Sabbath, it seems to me that we would be wise to avoid meticulously legislating what we can and can't do on the Lord’s Day. This is what the Pharisees did, and this is a trap that even some churches today fall victim to. Many of you remember a time when you were not allowed to kick a soccer ball on the Sabbath, a time when you could not watch TV on the Sabbath. There was a day when many of our churches treated the Sabbath the way the Pharisees did.
But now, what has happened? What often is the case is that when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it eventually comes back to swing too far in the other direction. We do not observe the Sabbath like Pharisees, do we? No, most of us treat the Sabbath the way pagans do—we treat it like any other day. We put in our hour at church, we run to Loblaws and buy things for dinner, we go home and we do what? We run around trying to get more things done.
The times are changing; the way we live in 2004 is certainly different than the culture of 1808, but in my mind the changes in our culture make Sabbath observance more necessary, not less necessary. It is because North Americans in the 21st Century are so busy that we need the Sabbath now, more than ever.
Beloved, Jesus did not abolish the Sabbath. He did not even say that the Sabbath was now relaxed. Jesus simply warned against legalistically observing the Sabbath, which often led to neglecting to do what was good and necessary.
We have the account of Jesus' disciples picking and eating the heads of grain as an example of human necessity taking precedence over strict Sabbath observance. In this second account, at the beginning of Mark 3, Jesus demonstrates that doing good must not be neglected on the Sabbath.
“(Jesus) entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there whose hand was withered. (The Pharisees) were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. He said to the man with the withered hand, "Get up and come forward!" And He said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?" But they kept silent. After looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored”(3:1-5).
The principle taught in this account should be clear: It is appropriate to do good on the Sabbath. The man with the withered hand was not in any imminent danger. Jesus could have waited until the next day to heal the man. But by healing the man on the Sabbath, Jesus demonstrates that it is always appropriate to engage in deeds of mercy.
In addition to duties of necessity, and deeds of mercy, there is one other Sabbath day activity mentioned in this passage: Worship. Mark records that Jesus "entered again into a synagogue". Luke’s account adds that Jesus was “teaching” in the synagogue on the Sabbath (Lk. 6:6). The Scriptures have always been central to the Sabbath day. They were central in Moses' day, they were central in Jesus' day, and they should be central in our own day.
It should be clear by now that we don't simply break the Sabbath by engaging in forbidden activities, but we break the Sabbath when we neglect activities that are prescribed for us to do. Worship, duties of necessity, and deeds of mercy must not be neglected on the Sabbath.
And since the Bible does not provide an elaborate list of prohibited activities for the Sabbath, I will not presume to offer you a prohibited activity list now. This does not, however, excuse us from keeping the Sabbath.
The principles for Sabbath observance are clear and straightforward: Observing the Sabbath means engaging in worship (that means coming here every Lord’s Day!); observing the Sabbath means engaging in duties of necessity; observing the Sabbath means engaging in deeds of mercy.
You have started your Sabbath well by coming here this morning. For God's glory and for your own benefit, continue to keep the Sabbath—today and every Sunday. Amen.