In Sunday School at 2nd Reformed Presbyterian Church this past week we continued our class on the Sabbath and our time. Last week we looked at the purpose for the Sabbath in the Old Testament. This week we examined the purpose of the Sabbath in the New Testament.
1. Christ’s View of the Sabbath
Many of Christ’s miracles were performed on the Jewish Sabbath and was criticized by the Pharisees for not keeping the Sabbath. In Mark 7:1-13, Christ and the Pharisees debate the role of rituals and customs in society. The Pharisees ask Jesus why his disciples don’t wash their hands. His response is to call them hypocrites because they are concerned with rituals while forgetting the essence of the law. They did not focus on the inclination of a person’s heart. Rather than wanting to keep God’s law, they made it lawful to break God’s law.
Another time, the Pharisees catch Jesus’ disciples picking up grain to eat on the Sabbath in Matthew 12:1-14. They challenge Jesus’ about his disciples behavior. Jesus’ response is to say that works of mercy and works of necessity are allowable on the Sabbath. One should do good on the Sabbath. Helping others have a day of rest is a fitting use of the Sabbath.
In some sense, Christ’s interpretation of the fourth commandments broadens it from how the Pharisees were interpreting it. Rather than limit what one can do on the Sabbath, Christ broadens the fourth commandment to encourage fellow believers to do good to others, especially on the Sabbath.
2. Paul’s warning about the Sabbath
In Colossians 2, Paul warns the church in Colossea to not allow anyone to pass judgment regarding “questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.” The reason is that these things are “shadows” of the “substance” which is Christ. Ultimately, these practices have no eternal value for the believer. Rather our substance is found in Christ.
Likewise, the Sabbath’s focus is on Christ. It is a day for Christians to remember what God has done to bring them to Himself. It’s a joyous celebration. The particular practices or “human precepts and teachings” that come out of keeping the Sabbath (like no bicycling on the Sabbath) are not what is fundamental to the Sabbath.
Paul warns the young pastor Timothy to beware of people who have the appearance of godliness, the form, but deny its power (2 Timothy 3:1-5). People who merely keep the appearance of godliness, following right practices, are still in their hearts set against God. This is how Paul describes them:
“lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”
One can keep the Sabbath, keep the structure and follow the rules, but if one’s heart is not set on Christ and love for Him then one is merely following the appearance of godliness.
3. The Church’s Response to the Old Law
In Acts 15, the church had to decide whether the Gentiles were to keep the old law or ceremonial law. In the midst of the debate, Peter argues that the Gentiles do not have to keep the old law. His reason is put in the form of a question. “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Peter is saying that the church should not put the burden of the law on the gentile believers because it is by grace that believers are saved. The Gentiles won’t be saved by keeping the law. Keeping the Sabbath is not a burden of the ceremonial law. As it says in Isaiah 58, keeping the Sabbath is a “delight.” Sometimes though, believers practice of the Sabbath can be like keeping the ceremonial law. Rather than keeping the focus on Christ, the focus is on the rules and regulations of a particular place and time.
4. The Focus of the Sabbath
In Hebrews 4:1-13, the writer tells the church that one day there will be rest for God’s people in God’s presence. The writer points to the Sabbath as a sampling of what we’re looking forward to. But even more so, the Christian ceasing from work on the Sabbath is a deep and comforting reminder that because of Christ’s work on the cross, Christians do not need to work for their salvation. Pulling back from work on the Sabbath and saying no to what we do during the week gives us a taste of what is to come but also reminds us that our salvation comes from the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Joseph A Pipa says in his book, The Lord’s Day, “The Sabbath ‘deals the death-blow to our becoming workaholics or to our being obsessed with our favorite recreation or activity.’ - there is the practical side effect of the Sabbath that here is a direct contradiction between what God wants us to do and what we want to do.” (66)
In conclusion, the focus of the Sabbath is on Christ. We use the Sabbath appropriately when we set aside the daily affairs of life to focus on Christ. It is a day of rest in what Christ has done for us.