In the first two articles of this series, we examined the biblical theology of the Sabbath in relation to the divine act of creation, the history and theology of the people of Israel and early Christianity. This third and final article in the series will examine the Sabbath from the perspective of legalism, under which some commentators have placed seventh-day observance.
The “legalism” of the Sabbath
Galatians 3. Michael Morrison argues that obedience to the Sabbath commandment is a “work of the law”, and according to Galatians 3:2-5, “works of the law” are against the Spirit and the Christian faith. However, no evangelical apologist explains why obedience to the Sabbath commandment would be more legalistic than obedience to the other commandments, such as to worship the one true God, to honour one’s parents, not to cheat on one’s wife, etc. In fact, none of the ten commandments is quoted in Galatians. The only commandment disputed there is circumcision, which Paul contrasts with the sign of circumcision—the renewal of life through faith, which for him was synonymous with “keeping God’s commandments.”
God’s commandments have a very clear and useful role. Paul says that if it had not been for the tenth commandment (“You shall not covet…”), he would not have known that it is a sin to covet what is not your own. In other words, the commandments include not only aspects of social morality (honouring one’s parents, defending one’s neighbour’s life, faithfulness in love, honesty, and respect for truth and justice), but also spiritual aspects—the tenth commandment refers to intentions and desires, not just works.
Nevertheless, not only the tenth, but also the first of the ten commandments are religious and spiritual in nature, and they do not belong to social morality (except in a theocratic state). How would we know the truth if the letter of the Law did not expressly forbid the worship of gods other than the One who delivered Israel from slavery? Most of the world in all ages has had more than one God, which means that having only one is not in itself more logical or moral. Without the principle that forbids the worship of images, how would we know that God disapproves of such worship? The third commandment seems to have a more obvious moral component, because it has strong social implications (“You shall not take God’s name in vain!”), but the fourth commandment (of the Sabbath) we wouldn’t know if we didn’t have the letter of the Law. Neither logic nor morality reveals to us God’s will concerning the manner and time of worship.
Most importantly, the Sabbath commandment is not based on an obvious moral principle, but on the ultimate source of any moral or spiritual principle: God’s authority. The commandment behind all commandments, the supreme commandment, is that of obedience to God, not because we fully understand the logic or moral character of the requirement, but because of the simple fact that God said so and knows best, because He is God, not us. This is the true commandment broken in paradise; it was not simply a commandment to not steal a piece of fruit. It is a perfect parallel to the Sabbath commandment and shows how far human freedom goes:
- “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden,
- but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…”
- “Six days you shall labour and do all your work,
- but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it, you shall not do any work.”
Romans 7. A common argument against the “legalism” of the Sabbath that Morrison asserts is found in Romans 7. No wonder, since chapter 7 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is one of the most difficult illustrations of “our dear brother Paul.” The most likely interpretation is that the woman in the parable (the believer) is released from the law of marriage to her first husband (“the realm of the flesh”) if he has died legally (through the death of Christ), but it does not suggest that the law (of marriage) has been abolished. If, being with a second husband, she longs for the first, or pursues a third, then she is adulterous, and condemned by the same law.
Generally speaking, Romans 7 is easier to understand when it is studied in parallel with the previous chapter (Romans 6), where the essential difference between being “under the law” and being “under grace” is that while “under the law” sin rules over us, and while “under grace” sin no longer rules over us. The apostle’s statement is paradoxical.
But lest anyone think that to be under grace is to be free to choose which divine commandments to obey and which to reject, the apostle says that to be “under the law” is to be “slaves of sin,” while to be “under grace” is to be “slaves of obedience, which leads to righteousness.” All those who think that to live under grace is freedom for the earthly flesh, or for the “self” obsessed with affirming its own theology, should note that “under grace” we do not escape from obedience, from slavery, or from the authority of the Law, but rather it becomes a slavery of love into which God’s grace draws us, an obedience born of conviction and love.
To live in the “new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” does not mean to violate the letter of the law for the sake of the spirit, as if the true solution of religion were the cleverness of allegorising and spiritualising what the commandment clearly says “in letter.” Spiritualisation is good up to a point, if it does not destroy the literal meaning. For example, “You shall not kill”, spiritualised, could mean not to slander anyone. That’s fine, but if you actually kill someone without slandering them, you can’t say you’ve fulfilled the spirit of the law by breaking the letter.
In all the logical and spiritual meanderings of Romans 7 and 8, however, the Law is shown to have power and purpose. It is holy, righteous, good and spiritual. The commandment of the law (any commandment) can be fulfilled in those who live according to the guidance of the Spirit, while those who prefer the freedom of the earthly flesh do not love the Law, will not and cannot obey it. It is true that sin uses the same commandment to bring condemnation. But this presupposes that the reverse is true first: righteous living also uses the same commandment. This is why Paul repeatedly warns those who think that grace or faith weaken the authority of the law: “Not at all!” On the contrary, faith confirms and strengthens the authority of the Law.
Colossians 2. Probably the most quoted passage against the Sabbath is Colossians 2:14-18: “...having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.“
Or consider an updated translation that can be compared with many other modern translations: “Having cancelled the bill of debt which by legal sentences stood against us and was hostile to us, He cast it aside and nailed it to the cross. Disarming and stripping the archons and angelic potentates, He exposed them to public shame and carried them as prisoners in a triumphal procession. Therefore, let no one judge you for food and drink, or concerning any religious festival, or New Moon, or Sabbath, which are a shadow of future reality, while the incarnate reality is that of Christ.”
In other words, Paul is saying that Jesus, through His sacrifice, abolished the list of our sins (of breaking the commandments) and not the commandments themselves. And the Sabbaths, which no one is to criticise another for abandoning, are defined as “a shadow of the good things that are coming,” along with the new moons and calendar holidays. The “religious festivals” in the passage are the three great religious festivals with annual pilgrimage: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The new moons had been incorporated into the Law of Moses as an older Semitic tradition and were very popular. The “Sabbaths” in this passage are seven “red-letter” (non-working) calendar feasts that can fall on any day of the week: the two Sabbaths of the Feast of Unleavened Bread on 15 Nisan and 21 Nisan; the Sabbath of Pentecost on 6 Sivan; the Sabbath of the Feast of Trumpets on 1 Tishri; the Sabbath of Atonement on 10 Tishri; and the two Sabbaths of the Feast of Tabernacles on 15 and 21 Tishri. (For the legal basis of these calendar Sabbaths see Leviticus 23:4-37.)
To show that there is a clear distinction between these Sabbaths and the Lord’s Sabbath (Saturday, as a weekly rest), the latter is repeated before the list of all the feasts and Sabbaths. Moreover, the manner or degree of sabbatisation was also different. The calendrical (ceremonial) Sabbaths only stopped servile work, while the weekly Sabbath did not allow any ordinary work.
Only one ceremonial Sabbath required the cessation of all work, as did the weekly Sabbath: the Day of Atonement. But this Sabbath also differs from the Saturday Sabbath in that the Sabbath of Atonement is a day of mourning and fasting while the Saturday Sabbath is a day of rejoicing. In addition, there is the essential distinction that the weekly Sabbath comes from the time of Creation, while the other Sabbaths come from the time of Moses. Moreover, the Ten Commandments did not establish any other Sabbaths, not even major festivals such as Passover, but only the seventh-day, the only universal Sabbath.
Is Jesus’ example binding?
Morrison points out that the appeal to Jesus’ example is not convincing because not everything Jesus did in obedience to the Law becomes binding on everyone. We must live as if He were alive today, not as if we were in His place. Under the authority of Christ, as Christians, we are to live not as He lived, but as He has commanded us to live.
Morrison’s objection is essentially correct. Jesus, born a Jew, a son of the old covenant, had to and did observe the requirements of the Torah: circumcision, the sacrifice of purification after birth, the instructions for those cured of leprosy, the Passover sacrifice and unleavened bread, the feasts and the pilgrimage to the temple. Therefore, Jesus was a true Jew. Should we be surprised that He kept the Sabbath? Should we be surprised that by His example He encouraged His fellow citizens, including His Judeo-Christian followers, to keep the Sabbath? Should we be surprised that He justified His use of the Sabbath by allowing blessings and often performing healings?
Jesus did not even explicitly condemn late feasts, which were not commanded by God, nor the custom of washing, except on those occasions when He or His disciples were accused of not performing such a ritual. In these cases, Jesus wisely countered and sometimes vehemently opposed the customs, accusing the religious teachers of putting the commandments of the synagogue above the commandment of God.
Therefore, Jesus placed the commandments of the Decalogue above other Jewish religious duties and, even more so, above rabbinical traditions. He made it clear that He is the basis of eternal life, and that the principle of salvation is faith in Him, but just as clearly He affirmed the commandments of the Decalogue and the great principles of the Law as conditions of eternal life.
The objection that Jesus did not mention the Sabbath commandment in His answer to the “rich young ruler” is unacceptable. The Gospels mention that Jesus named some commandments for illustration. According to Matthew, Jesus listed the commandments in the order of VI, VII, VIII, IX, and V, to which He added the great commandment of Leviticus 9:18. According to Mark and Luke, Jesus mentioned the same commandments, but without the great commandment and in a different order: VII, VI, VIII, IX, and V. It is obvious that the account of the Evangelists is not a stenogram or an exact verbatim account of Jesus’ words, but a record in principle, as in the other cases.
Why did Jesus quote only the Decalogue commandments concerning relations with one’s neighbour? Why did He quote only one of the two great commandments of the Law (“Love your neighbour as yourself”)? It is clear that Jesus wanted to teach this well-mannered young man that his observance of the commandments was imperfect because he did not love his neighbour as himself. Jesus did not mention, as in other cases, the first great commandment of the Law (“Love the Lord your God…”), which is exemplified by the first four commandments of the Decalogue (I. Worship the One God; II. Worship in the Spirit, excluding the worship of images; III. Sanctify the name of God; IV. Keep the day of the Lord, the Sabbath). However, no one is suggesting that the omission of these commandments from Jesus’ discourse implies that they were to be abrogated or that they were less important. Paul does the same, for the same reasons.
Jesus was not catechising the people, and He deliberately did not deal with issues that were already known, undisputed, and overemphasised by the other rabbis, such as the authority of the Sabbath commandment. Rather, He addressed existing needs as they arose. And the sad reality of decadent Judaism was that while the commandments of love of God (religion) were increasingly emphasised as legal obligations and increasingly burdened with additional duties, the commandments of love of one’s fellow people (social morality) were negotiated, devalued, and flouted, on the pretext that the first four, which concerned duty to God, were more important! As a matter of fact, this is the legalistic reflex of every religion. Morality exists in every religion, but religious commandments, considered superior, often stifle elementary moral principles.
The meaning of Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24:20
Non-Sabbatarian commentators are divided on the meaning of this avoidance of taking refuge on the Sabbath (“Pray that your flight [to the mountains of Transjordan] will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath”). Some point to the impossibility of leaving Jerusalem because the gates were closed from Friday evening, and because the other Jews would have prevented them from travelling more than one Sabbath journey (2,000 cubits). Other non-Sabbatarian commentators believe that the emphasis in Matthew 24:20 is evidently Sabbatarian, and would be proof that these are not Jesus’ words, but were added by the Judeo-Christian writer, since only Matthew mentions the Sabbath here.
However, the reference to the Sabbath appears in all the manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel, and we know that Matthew, unlike Mark, was a witness to Jesus’ words, being one of the twelve. Since he was addressing primarily Judeo-Christians, writing before the fall of Jerusalem, he gave the full warning of Jesus, which was relevant, not so much for the need to reaffirm the Sabbath (given that the “old” commandment was sufficient), but in contrast to the dispensations given by the Jews for cases of force majeure (war).
Jesus’ warning was not only a reference to Daniel’s prophecy of the “abomination that causes desolation” but also a polemical parallel to the prophetic application in the Book of Maccabees (and confirmed by Josephus in Antiquities, 12), which speaks of (1) the conquest of Jerusalem by the Syrians and the setting up of the “abomination that causes desolation” in the month of Kislev, i.e. winter; (2) the Hasidim taking refuge in the caves of the mountains; (3) the Syrian persecutors attacking them and, seeing that the Jews are determined not to fight on the Sabbath, taking advantage of the Sabbath, suppressing by fire and smoke hundreds of refugees, among them mothers and children; (4) the permission given by the priest Mattathias, after this disaster, to fight a defensive battle on the Sabbath. Josephus, a few decades after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, confirms: “And this rule continues among us to this day, that if there be a necessity, we may fight on sabbath day.”
In recounting the whole scenario and applying it to the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, Jesus makes an exception for the climatic conditions (the Palestinian winter, rainy and cold) and the observance of the Sabbath. He does not give instructions on what to do in extreme cases, but advises His followers to pray that it will not happen in winter or on a Sabbath.
Did Jesus or the apostles have the authority to abolish the Sabbath?
The answer to this question depends on the theological paradigm in which we develop our thinking. Christ is undoubtedly God in the highest sense of the word, one with the Father, even if He is not to be confused with Him as a person. From this point of view, it would be reasonable for Jesus, as God incarnate, to take the liberty of doing whatever He wants with the “old” commandments, including the Sabbath: replace them, abolish them completely, or anything that He wanted. Unfortunately, many Christians read the New Testament within this precise paradigm.
Yet that’s not what Jesus taught us. Although He was and remained divine, Jesus chose to become incarnate, not only to live in human conditions, not only to die, but also to live a real human life in the flesh, so that He could be our perfect teacher by His example and words. Simply put, His humiliation did not consist merely in taking on human nature, but also in taking on the status of a human being, subordinate to God as such. As much as we would like to argue that He came to abolish the old and establish the new, He Himself asserted that He did not come to abolish, but to confirm.
Jesus never defended Himself with His own messianic authority, nor with the authority of a prophet to whom God speaks directly, but even in the face of the devil, who has no need of Scripture, He always referred to the authority of the sacred text of the Hebrew Bible. Unlike Jesus, no one has the right to defend himself with typologies, suppositions, numerologies, and speculations on the covenants.
The only authority that Jesus left to his apostles (“the power of the keys”) is that which He Himself had received: “the Word and the Holy Spirit,” as Luther put it in his hymn. They could only act in the name of Jesus, in the way of Jesus, and within the human authority given to Jesus. They had no authority to change whatever crossed their minds, not even with a whole ecumenical council on their side.
The apostles understood this very well. Towards the end of the century, perhaps as the last of the living apostles, John makes no mention of a weekly celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, even where it would have been obligatory to mention it. Instead, he calls the Lord’s Sabbath, the day on which the Apocalypse was revealed to him, “the day of the Lord.” It is on this day that the Lord appeared to him and revealed the future, until the end of the Christian era, when John sees in the heavenly temple “the ark of the covenant” and repeats the warning about the role that obedience to the commandments of the Decalogue will play in the final conflict of Revelation.
Many other curious and pedantic objections are raised against the Sabbath, with appeals to Biblical texts, but for the moment the counter-arguments in the three articles of this series provide a sufficient basis for those who wish to delve deeper into the subject. In analysing the issue, we may discover that anti-Sabbathism is not just any old dispute, but rather evidence that the Christian majority has evolved from ancient times into a pseudo-Pauline, almost Marcionite paradigm, influenced by the gnoses that circulated and by the tensions between the Church and the Synagogue in the first Christian centuries. This makes the need for a sincere return to the principle of the supremacy of Scripture all the more urgent.
Florin Lăiu is a former Bible professor at the Theological Seminary of the Adventus University in Romania where he worked for 28 years, specialising in biblical languages, biblical exegesis, apocalyptic and biblical translation. Now retired, he is an Adventist apologetic, poetry and music enthusiast, author of articles and books, husband, father of four, and grandfather of six.