Is It Time To Change The Sabbath Back To Saturday

Most of the misperceptions today about the meaning and application of the Christian Sabbath can be traced to two historic sources: The Jews in Christ's day and the Puritans of early America.

In the New Testament times, the Jews distorted the meaning of the Sabbath by dwelling on prohibitions against work. Avoiding pleasure on the Sabbath was not a Hebrew concern. The American Puritans, also strict on the matter of Sabbath work, included prohibitions against pleasure in their Sabbath keeping. The Puritans, of course, worshiped on Sunday, but kept the day far more rigorously than modern Sunday keepers do.

Neither the Jewish Sabbath nor the Puritan Sabbath measures up to God's beneficent design for the day. Both Jews and Puritans obscured the meaning of the Sabbath by focusing heavily upon Sabbath prohibitions, rather than upon Sabbath provisions. This negative preoccupation, however sincere, led both to dwell on efforts to avoid breaking the Sabbath rather than on enjoying the blessings of the Sabbath.

For example, a Jewish woman was prohibited from looking into a mirror on the Sabbath lest she see a gray hair and be tempted to pluck it out. This would be considered work, and Jews didn't work on Saturdays.

Walking through a grain field on the Sabbath when the grain was ankle high was permissible behavior for New Testament Jews. But to walk through the field when the grain was knee high, as Christ's disciples did, was forbidden. Why? Because knee-high grain would have heads that might be shaken off. Thus the pious Jewish hiker would become guilty of the sin of “threshing” on the Sabbath day.

A dressing could be applied to a boil on the Sabbath if it merely maintained the medical condition. But if the dressing promoted healing, the individual would be guilty of Sabbath breaking.

New Testament Jews apparently had not forgotten the death penalty for Sabbath breaking in the Old Testament: “You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death.” They determined to be obedient, but ironically, their very acts of obedience became distortions of the Sabbath commandment.

Life in 17th-century Massachusetts, however, could also be rigorous. In 1670 two Puritan “lovers”, John Lewis and Sarah Chapman, were accused and tried for “sitting together on the Lord's day under an apple tree in Goodman Chapman's orchard.” In a Boston case of 1656, a Captain Kemble spent two hours in the public stocks for “lewd and unseemly behavior.” He kissed his wife on the porch of his home on Sunday, after returning from a three year voyage!

Pleasure Seeking

In the New Testament Christ refused to support the elaborate work prohibitions required by rabbinic law - prohibitions that distorted God's intentions for the Sabbath as a day for rest. But doesn't the Old Testament support the Puritan perspective of avoiding pleasure on the Sabbath? One passage seems to: “If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord.” A misunderstanding of this text, combined with the asceticism of those Christians who thought they could please God by denying basic human needs and emotions, has confused Christians for centuries.

In these verses, the Hebrew word translated pleasure literally means “business pursuits.” Consistent with the commandment to abstain from work on the seventh day, this passage simply underscores the centrality of abstaining from pursuing one's normal business, or “pleasure”, on the holy day. As mentioned in the first article in this series, the text surely does not mean to amid that which is pleasant or pleasurable on the Sabbath. If the Old Testament prophet had meant to warn against all things pleasurable, he could scarcely have asked us to “delight” in the Sabbath in the very same breath! If the command forbids that which is pleasant, how shall we obey the accompanying command to “delight in the Sabbath?” Whatever else the Sabbath might be, it is to be a delight, indeed, a pleasure.

Modern Meanings

The Sabbath commandment has a built-in provision to keep the holy day relevant in all ages. This commandment, the fourth in the decalogue, differs from the other nine in two important ways: First, by specifically requiring rest on the precise seventh day it removes the Sabbath commandment from the realm of natural law. The rational mind has little difficulty understanding the common sense behind commandments against murder, adultery, theft, and even idolatry. But to command a precise rest day evokes the familiar protest “Isn't one day as good as another?”

Because of its specific nature, the Sabbath commandment differs in a second way: It is the only commandment to include a subjective element. Christ acknowledged this element when He said, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” This simple statement identifies the day as a gift that could make life better for people in all ages. In view of the historic tendency of religious bodies to turn the Sabbath commandment into a negative list of prohibitions, the wonder is that the day God designated has only been changed and not discarded altogether!

But it is not simply Christ's restoration of meaning to the Sabbath that gives subjective, personal power to the fourth commandment. The Old Testament endorses this subjectivism. The Ten Commandment law first appears in Exodus 20. The basis for Sabbath observance in this passage is creation. God is Creator; therefore His creatures are called to remember Him on the seventh day.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.” When the Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy 5, the reason for observance changes to deliverance. God has delivered his people from slavery in Egypt; therefore those who have been delivered are called to keep the seventh day holy.

“Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

Both reasons, different as they are, are included in the very heart of the decalogue. The second giving of the law not only expands Sabbath meanings by changing the reason for keeping the day, it also adds detail. These expanded meanings, based on national experiences, justify a continued expansion of Sabbath meanings and detail in our time. Again, the dynamic flow of human experience is a built-in provision for preserving the authenticity of the command.

It is exceedingly significant, however, that neither Old Testament nor New Testament makes any provision for altering the precise day of rest and worship that God specified. Apart from the prohibitions against working on the day, we are able to attach our own meanings – the Sabbath was made for man after all. Still, the gift was defined in such a way as to fix the seventh day as a permanent part of human experience. Is there any point in attempting rationally to understand this irrational part of the commandment?

Positive Forbidding

Perhaps, in his book Perelandra, C. S. Lewis opens a window of understanding by rewriting the Genesis story of man's fall into sin. The “green lady,” Eve's counterpart in the story, is told that she must not stay on the “fixed land” overnight. In a fierce struggle between the influences of good and evil, arguments are presented to the green lady from both perspectives. Evil tells her that God has given the law about the fixed land so that she might express her freedom through disobedience – to show how free and mature she really is. The very irrationality of the commandment, says evil, reveals that it was designed to be broken. Surely an intelligent God would neither require nor honor an act that was irrational, unreasonable, and unnatural! Evil tells the green lady that the command gives her an opportunity to express her own rationality and intelligence by breaking the foolish restriction.

When the innocent lady is almost convinced, the influence for good speaks, turning evil's argument on its head and winning the day: “I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?”

It is the very “irrationality” of the specific seventh day that makes the Sabbath commandment a special one of fidelity, trust, and love. It is in this sense that the Sabbath was a “sign” to the Old Testament Jew. And it is still a testing feature of the decalogue today. Those who obey for no other reason than His bidding are those who honor Him best.

Sixteen centuries ago the early church changed the Sabbath from the seventh day to Sunday. Of course they had reasons for making the change. But now, properly understood, demythologized, and restored to the meanings for which Christ gave His life, the Sabbath remains an irresistible gift from God for believing Christians everywhere.

It's time to change the Sabbath back to Saturday.

Religion | Christianity

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