Word Study #146 — The Sabbath –Part 2

Please refer to #110 for more historical information.

Observance of the Jewish “Sabbath” was, if such is possible, even more controversial in the first century than the term has become among some Christian groups today. It got Jesus into a lot of trouble, so I guess it should be no surprise if it does the same for others who are serious about faithfulness.
Although sabbath observance was only one among many requirements enshrined in the Jewish Law (W.S.#37 and 38), by the time of Jesus, it may have been considered the most important. Issues of civic consequence, for example, were no longer open to the discretion of either individuals or their ruling hierarchy, but were dictated by the Roman occupiers. “Religious” requirements were all they had left, with which to define and / or maintain their group identity. So please remember, they meant well. The leaders who became Jesus’ opponents, critics, and eventual executioners, honestly believed that they were acting as “defenders of the faith”, and consequently they had carefully developed extensive commentaries – and commentaries on those commentaries – to assure that their revered Law would be correctly observed in every detail, especially its hallmark, the Sabbath, which was defined and re-defined with more than a thousand detailed instructions and regulations.

Lexical references to to sabbaton, or its plural form, ta sabbata, which are used interchangeably, are almost totally confined to LXX and NT sources, except for the occasional reference to seven days as a “week” – a concept which appears historically in ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, and Persian cultures, prior to any contact with Jewish or Christian thought.
In the New Testament, 14 of the uses of sabbaton / sabbata are simply fixing the date when something happened. Four are when Jesus showed up at a synagogue, and four when Paul did likewise (except that one of those was a gathering on a river bank, not a synagogue). Quite simply, that’s where people were – so it was a sensible place to teach or preach. “Showing up” was not controversial.

The trouble started when it came to specifics. Jesus’ announcement of his mission (Lk.4:16) during the course of his visit to the synagogue at Nazareth nearly got him thrown off a cliff! His healings on similar occasions caused an uproar. The “authorities” (Lk.13:14) scolded the beneficiaries of his ministrations, “Come on other days to be healed, not on the Sabbath!” Their objections frequently precipitated discussions about what was and was not appropriate Sabbath behavior (Mt.12:10-12, Lk.6:5-9, 13:14; Mk.3:2-4). Jesus’ reply is classic: “should I treat people with less concern that you have for your animals?” (Lk.13:15, 14:5; Mt.12:10-12), but even more telling is his question, recorded only by Mark (3:4), “Is it permissible on the Sabbath to do good, or to do evil? To save a life, or to kill?” Here is summarized one of the most significantly different aspects of Jesus’ teaching, in contrast to the Law which his critics so staunchly defended. It’s no longer a question of prohibitions, but of positive actions for another’s welfare. In Jesus’ universe, to fail (or refuse) to do good IS to do evil, and to refuse to save a life IS to kill. And the day of the week on which it happens is quite irrelevant!

John (5:1-18) describes an incident of healing – also on a sabbath – at the pool of Bethzatha, and its aftermath in the temple. First, the Jewish rulers berated the healed man for carrying his no-longer-needed cot (probably calling it “work”), and then they turned on Jesus, who was their real target anyway. He mildly observed, “My Father is still working, and so am I!” (v.17). John then explains, “Because of this, therefore, the Jews were seeking to kill him, because he not only was ‘breaking’ the Sabbath, but was saying that his own Father was God, equating himself with God!” (v.18)
The Synoptics all record (Mt.12:8, Mk.2:28, Lk.6:5) Jesus’ claim that “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” They place that statement at the time when the disciples were criticized for snacking in a grain field. “Harvesting” was “work”, and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath, although the Law had specified that grain be deliberately left at the edges of a field for the benefit of strangers (Lv.19:9,10).
Mark includes a second statement which Matthew and Luke missed: “The Sabbath came to be, for the benefit of people, not people for the Sabbath.” (v.27)
Indeed, a day or rest and worship among the Lord’s people is a wonderful, life-giving gift. How sad, that the desires of men to rule over others should make it a day of restrictions and prohibitions, rather than one of the celebration of the kindness and goodness of God!
In Heb.3 and 4, the writer details the “sabbath rest” (sabbatismos – used only here) provided for faithful followers of the Lord Jesus (See “Rest” #77). This is offered, not once-a-week, but permanently, in union with him, although it certainly requires continuous attention and effort (4:11).
By Jesus’ own testimony, besides being himself the Lord of the Sabbath as noted above – as well as Lord of everything else! – he has already fulfilled everything that was formerly written truly “about him” in the Law and the Prophets, and is himself the provider of rest (Mt.11:28). He issued no regulations about a particular day or observance – except, as noted, “to do good” and “to save life”– every day!

There are eight places in the New Testament where the word sabbaton / sabbata is not translated “sabbath”, but is part of the phrase, “the first day of the week”. Six of these refer to the day of Jesus’ resurrection, and of the joyful discovery by his followers that HE IS ALIVE!!! The other two are I Cor.16:2, where the readers are encouraged to set aside what they have committed for the relief offering “on the first day of the week”, and Ac.20:7, the meeting where Paul preached young Eutychus to sleep. Some folks insist that these two meetings indicate that the “first day” had been declared the “new Sabbath” – but there is no such statement to be found. Others are just as adamant that the “original” Jewish Sabbath be required. One also searches in vain for any admonition to that effect. Some folks have extensive lists of activities that must be avoided – or performed – on whichever day they have chosen, and eagerly try to force them, legally, upon the general population.
By contrast, Paul warns in Col.2:16 against being deceived by those who “pass judgment on you all, about food or drink, or observance of feasts, or new moons, or sabbaths.” At the Jerusalem Conference (Ac.15), which dealt with the inclusion of Gentile converts, there was no mention of a Sabbath requirement being imposed upon the newcomers – only the avoidance of things connected to idol worship. Paul notes in Eph.2:15, that Jesus “eliminated the law of commands and decrees, in order that he might create the two, in himself, into one new person [humanity], thus making peace.”
As for “meetings”, we have the testimony of Ac.2:46,47 that the brethren met daily to learn, to share, and to worship. Later, it seems as if they assembled whenever Paul or another of the teachers was in the vicinity, as well as “from house to house”. Heb.10:25 reminds us not to neglect getting together. But when and where seems to be flexible.

So – Celebrate the gift of Sabbath rest! If you choose to do it on the day honored by Jewish tradition, do it giving thanks to the Lord of the Sabbath!
If you prefer to commemorate the resurrection of our Lord and his present life among us,on the day when he definitively defeated evil and death, celebrate his triumph, giving thanks!
Celebrate becoming loving siblings in his family!
Celebrate by actively “doing good” and “saving life” – the only two “Sabbath” activities that Jesus specifically commended to our observance.
More is better, when it involves folks who love the Lord and each other!

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2 Responses to Word Study #146 — The Sabbath –Part 2

  1. Bob Martin says:

    Ruth,
    I once preached a message on the Sabbath in which I stated that I don’t believe it matters which day you take for resting as long as you take one day a week. After the service a person came up to me to disagree with my statement. The person said that God hallowed the 7th day, therefore that is the day we should rest. I could have replied that God hallowed the 7th day but we rest on the first day. Any reaction?

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    Only that nobody can say for sure when God started counting! The point is, I think, to acknowledge that we (humans) are never going to “finish”, as he did, so the best we can do is follow Jesus’ instructions. That will keep us busy for sure!

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