The whole idea of the Sabbath seems foreign to many; irrelevant even. Our society is geared towards ‘working hard’ and ‘playing hard’ but not ‘resting’. Rest is seen at best as something we do only out of necessity after we have worked too hard or played too hard. Or it is viewed as a waste of time in a YOLO (“you only live once”) world — driven by the need to cram in as much as possible before one dies. But is it?
Sabbath, in the Jewish mind is the focal point of the week; a holiday that is planned for, fiercely guarded and fully celebrated from sundown Friday night until sundown Saturday night. It is ushered in by the lighting of the two sabbath candles and separated from the rest of the week by “Havdalah”. By the lighting of two sabbath candles we welcome in Shabbat; the two candles remind us to ‘remember’ the sabbath day and ‘observe’ it, or keep it holy. They are kindled by the woman of the house and is one of the very important responsibilities given to her, along with the preparing of the challah, or braided sweet egg breads. The blessing on the challah and on the cup of sweet concord wine is said by the male head of the home. Then, the family dines on the best meal of the week; for which the choicest foods are reserved. The husband blesses his wife or in his absence, the eldest son blesses his mother and the father blesses each of his children. That evening is spent together as a family, sometimes in the study of Torah. There is a morning meal and late afternoon meal which is either prepared in advance before Shabbat started (or prepared before shabbat and simmered for 24 hours over a slow fire). Then, to mark the end of the sabbath, we have Havdalah. Havdalah is our final reflection on the ‘otherness’ of shabbat and is delineated by the smelling of fragrant spices, the lighting of a braided candle (kindling a fire after the day of rest) and the blessing on a cup of wine, in which the braided candle is extinguished. During shabbat, no work is done. Wow! That sure does seem like an awful big fuss over nothing in a busy frenetic world. But is it?
To many Christians, the whole idea of a sabbath is lost or at best confused. Some think since the command to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy was given to the Jews it is of no relevance to them whereas others think that the sabbath was somehow ‘changed’ to Sunday and that is the ‘Christian sabbath’. The sabbath was never changed; the early Church gathered on the first day of the week because that was the day their Lord rose from the dead. Note: the first day of the week according to the Hebraic (lunar) calendar of the Scriptures is Sunday not Monday (Gregorian calendar)].
The first day of the week,Sunday is called “the Lord’s Day”; a day for gathering together and remembering His death and resurrection. Acts 20:7 says that the early Church met ‘on the first day of the week’ to break bread together and it is commonly held that this was the weekly celebration of what has become known as ‘communion’. While many Christians recognize the the disciples waiting until after Shabbat to prepare His body for burial (Matt 28:1, Mark 16:1-2 and Luke 23:56) it is a commonly held misconception that Paul abolished the sabbath and quote a few passages in support of that (Rom 14:5-6, 1 Cor 8, Gal 4:9-10, Col 2:16). Let’s look at those passages a little more closely;
Romans 14:5-6, saying “no day is above another”, negating that the context of that verse is regarding the eating of meat or abstaining / fasting (see Rom 14: 2, 3 and 6), nothing about the keeping of the sabbath. Paul clearly had no issue with the Law (see Rom 7:12, Romans 2:13, Rom 7:22), but rather was addressing the diversity of practices in a body composed of both Jews and Gentiles — essentially saying that Gentiles are not second class citizens by not keeping the Jewish feasts or customs and neither are those believers that choose to abstain from meat (likely because they were concerned that the meat may had be offered to idols).
Paul’s comments in 1 Cor 8 was also not about the keeping of sabbath but about not causing another believer to stumble over whether we do or don’t observe – in this case, the eating of meat.
Some quote Galatians 4:9-10 as being about the baseness of celebrating the sabbath but one needs to look at the context of this passage to understand what Paul was saying, Galatia was in Asia Minor and the believers there were Gentiles (i.e. uncircumcised, see Gal 5:2, 6:12-13). The “weak and beggarly elements” Paul was referring to was an exhortation for these Gentile believers not to turn back to the pagan practices they had observed before becoming Christians.
Some say Col 2:16-17 abolishes the sabbath, but it is more clearly understood as an addressing of Gnostic beliefs and practices that had been influencing the Colossian church. Paul was not referring to that the Colossians were celebrating the sabbath but how they were. Paul’s conclusion in Col 2:16 is that no man should judge another with regard to how they observe the practice of eating meat, in drink, in keeping a holiday, new moon or sabbath. Paul says (Col 2:17) that these things are a shadow of things to come. This doesn’t make them obsolete, only exhorting us not to let others judge us in how we keep (or not keep) these things, but to let Him who is the living head, be the judge in that regard.
So what was Paul’s custom regarding the sabbath?
Acts 13:14 records that 10-15 years after coming to faith in Messiah, he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. Notice that the Gentiles in attendance (!) wanted him to teach them more about Jesus being the Messiah on the following sabbath. Gentiles in Antioch were already gathering with Jews on the sabbath. Paul did not correct them or rebuke them for this practice.
About five years later, Paul “came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. Then Paul, as his custom was went into them and for three sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and demonstrating that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead and saying “this Jesus whom I preached to you is the Christ” (Acts 17:1-3). This is 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus and it is STILL Paul’s custom to go to the synagogue on the sabbath and discuss the Scriptures!
Several years later, Paul went to Corinth where “he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath (Acts 18:4) and later went to Ephesus in Asia Minor where “he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8).
Although Paul was an apostle to the Gentiles, neither his teaching nor his actions on the sabbath indicate that Paul thought the sabbath was abolished. Paul’s emphasis is that whether we are Jews or Gentiles, we are not to judge each other in terms of how we observe — whether it is the eating of meat, the drinking of wine or the celebration of new moons, festivals or sabbaths.
So why celebrate shabbat? We rest, because He rested. He is our rest and we spend that time with Him, as well as those He entrusted to us as family (both by blood and by adoption).
When we find our identity in Him and delight in Him and His Word, we more easily let go of ‘our plans’ and the things we think are important. We were created for fellowship with Him and on shabbat we get to enjoy it, unencumbered by the demands of our busy life. What a privilege! What a delight!
As a Jew, I am free to observe shabbat and festivals and do so — and with great anticipation, knowing that such things are a shadow of things to come!