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A Christian Sabbath?



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The question of the Sabbath is one that has exercised me for years. A dear friend at the Tab struggled with his faith because of Christian inability to account for the changes in the Law in a precise legal way, and I spent many hours discussing the subject with him. One frequent focus for this was the Sabbath. It is the longest of the 10 commands, one of the most deeply grounded in the OT, a cause of the imposition of the death penalty for violation not only in decree but also in practice, and yet it is never explicitly repeated in the NT. The Westminster Confession and others, as you'll be aware, claim that the Sabbath has been transferred to the first day of the week, on the basis of the practice of the NT church, but without any other explicit proof.
 
If so, a pious Jew, in Asia minor for example, untaught about Christ, who was to continue observing the Sabbath after the resurrection, would have actually been sinning seriously, albeit in ignorance. To suggest that such an apparently weighty command is translated intact from one day to another with so little apparent authorisation seems surprising. Believers were sacrificing and encouraging sacrifice in the Temple till near its destruction (Acts 21.26), knowing full well that Calvary had rendered such offerings obsolete. It seems extraordinary that if Stephen, along with all the Apostles and Deacons, had effected a Westminster style revolution, started working on the Sabbath, yet observed the first day as strictly as scrupulously as they had the seventh, that this formed no part of the case for his prosecution by the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia in Acts 6, especially given the exquisite Jewish sensitivities to a doctrine for which they had repeatedly lost lives and cities, rather than profane by fighting on. It also seems extraordinary that it forms no part of the Jewish charge sheet against Paul, Peter, James or any other indictment brought against Christians in the NT. The Lord also seems to allude to observance of the Sabbath in Judea right up till the end (Matt.24.15-20).
 
Now I am not arguing at all for Sabbatarianism in the seventh day sense. There are very solid grounds for acknowledging the first day of the week as our day of worship, and also for regarding the seventh day as obsolete for Christian worship, and I take the Westminster proof texts (and others) as definitive confirmation of this. I too have spent plenty of time tackling Seventh Day Adventists and other seventh day movements, though I am certain there are believers amongst them. What troubles me is the rather blithe way in which we read back our own tradition into what took place in the NT. I'd be very surprised if the Apostles did not in some way continue to observe the Sabbath, as seventh day, for a while, continue to attend synagogues, just as they preached in them, until non-Messianic Jewish rejection was clear, and they judged that they had to leave (as in Corinth Acts 18.1,6, Ephesus Acts 19.8,9, or  in Aquila's case in Acts 18.26). No doubt in Jerusalem the separation was immediate because of the breach between the Temple authorities and Christ, but in other cities it seems it took place more gradually. Was the worship in the synagogues, and the Sabbath observance that must have accompanied it, just for witness? Did the apostles recognise the Sabbath as a lethal formality so instantly? If so was it an insight they kept to themselves and didn't inform the believers amongst the Pharisees about (Acts 21.20-24) ?
 
If the transition was not as watertight and sharp as the Westminster confession suggests, it again makes me doubt whether it's proper to describe the first day as 'the Christian Sabbath'. In some way, the first day perpetuates the kernel of the fourth command, as a commemoration of our Redemption, as a rest day, a foretaste of Heaven, but to describe it as 'the Sabbath' gives it a boundary and authority that makes me uneasy. I am especially uneasy because of the history of Roman persecution of the Jews, Ebionites and others by guillotining down on Sabbath observance, after assimilating and polluting Christian worship with idolatry.
 
To sharpen the question, was it sinful to sell or buy on Sabbath? Yes. Was it sinful to light a fire on Sabbath or to gather sticks? Yes. Was it regarded as an offence of sufficient gravity as to be punishable by death? Yes. So, why are Christians not to emulate precisely if not exceed these practices (with the exception of execution - its equivalent being decisive excommunication) now? Why then aren't Christians (not even Free Presbyterians) as scrupulous as the ultra-Orthodox in not burdening their generating stations by removing the lights in their refrigerators, nor activating automatic lights, insisting their local hospitals install 'Sabbath elevators' or excommunicating transgressors? All this may seem rather ridiculous, but it's not so much the practice I'm interested in, but the legal basis. What is the precise legal mechanism by which the solemn Sabbath has been transformed into a rather vague, culture-bound and frequently divisive set of local rules? I am not convinced at all that it has. I rather suspect something still more radical has happened to the Sabbath at the Lord's death and resurrection than a day transfer, yet it only became plainer to the disciples with time, but I still find it difficult to articulate precisely what or how. The day of Atonement is after all the Sabbath or Sabbaths (Nwtbs tbs, shavat shavaton Lev.16.31), the crowning Sabbath, and still is in its practice amongst the unbelieving Jews.

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I strongly agree about the first day having irresistible NT precedent and serving as our pattern, I think there is some distinction (personally, unlike Luther, I would feel free to eat black pudding, not that I'm fond of it, though I wouldn't do it with Muslim or Jewish guests). The key thing is the change of reason for the command from Exodus 20 to Deut 5, our motivation is to remember our redemption, Egypt and Pharaoh was a minor deliverance compared to sin and Satan, the New Creation a better foundation for rest than the Old.
 
To me there is a key text which lays down two practical principles: it is Col.2.16-17, in my present state of ignorance I don't claim it's normative, especially given the commentators' legitimate concern about the plural of Sabbath, simply that for now it governs my practice. First, 'Let no man therefore judge you', I am reluctant to pass judgement on others on this very central command, in a way as you've seen, I am not with others, and would take others' condemnations very lightly, though I would not deliberately offend them, unless the basis of the judgement is persuasively scripturally founded. I have and do gently tackle brethren I perceive to have mistaken the day, but not with the rigour to be reserved for an idolater, adulterer or thief. Second, in practice, as you write, the Lord's Day is for consecrating to the Lord, if that means updating the website or catching up with news that will affect prayer, witness and fellowship profoundly then so be it, but it is holy, the body is of Christ, it especially and particularly belongs to Him, profane ordinary things are to be lain aside. When overseas, I do sometimes reluctantly eat out, though I recognise that offends many. I have found to insist otherwise sometimes forces other believers to violate the command much more. Beyond that I cannot go, as yet.



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