What is the Sabbath?
It is the primary sign of the Jews’ covenant with Yahweh in the Old Testament (Ex. 20.10-12).
We don’t really deal in covenants anymore, with one exception. Marriage. Marriage also has a sign of the covenant.
The Sabbath is the wedding ring in Israel’s covenant with their betrothed.
As such, the Sabbath was always a big deal in Israel. Just as removing your wedding ring could easily signal the beginning of a messy divorce, violating the sanctity of the Sabbath was punishable in some cases by death. This continued well into the period after exile and into second-temple Judaism, where we have examples of Jewish rebels choosing to be slaughtered rather than to violate the Sabbath to lift a weapon in defense against their Roman enemies.
When is the Sabbath?
Exodus tells us that
Church on Sunday
The Christian community, however, began almost from their inception to meet early on Sunday morning, the first day of the week. They met on Sunday to commemorate the resurrection of Christ, to whom they prayed and in whose memory they took communion. They met early, before sunrise, because Sunday was a work day in Rome. It was our Monday.
What is most interesting is that the writings that make up the New Testament are unequivocally opposed to requiring observance of the Sabbath. Their understanding was that a new covenant was in place, mediated through Christ’s cross, and that the sign of the old covenant was no longer binding on them. Paul wrote in one letter
So Christians can feel free to observe the Sabbath (or a New Moon celebration, if you’re into that), whenever they want to. Feel free.
The lingering significance of the Sabbath
The springing into existence of the Christian community is an undeniable historical oddity that needs to be dealt with by any honest historian. If the existence, life and (primarily) resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is not granted, we have to come up with alternate socio-cultural explanations for why a group of Jews suddenly developed ethno-inclusive practices and began preaching a killed and resurrected messiah as the ultimate aim of Israel’s whole story. The observance of the Sabbath is one instance that is difficult to explain. N. T. Wright, in his breath-taking The Resurrection of the Son of God puts it this way
There is clearly evidence of the Christians meeting on the first day of the week….The seventh-day sabbath was so firmly rooted in Judaism as a major social, cultural, religious and political landmark that to make any adjustment in it was not like a modern western person deciding to play tennis on Tuesdays instead of Wednesdays, but like persuading the most devout medieval Roman Catholic to fast on Thursdays instead of Fridays, or the most devout member of the Free Church of Scotland to organize worship on Mondays instead of Sundays.
Wright uses the Sabbath as one example in his larger thesis, that the creation of a resurrection story is entirely implausible given the socio-cultural position where it sprang up. Andy Crouch, in commenting on cultural significance of the Sabbath, says that if anything, Wright understates the case.
The question Crouch and Wright are both demanding an answer for is, “Why?” Why change the Sabbath? Those living within the Christian tradition have a simple and strong answer. And while those critical of Christian claims have their own answers (hallucinations, hoaxes, myths borrowed from distant neighbors), as one within the Christian tradition I can’t help but find those answers weak, while Christ’s resurrection makes sense both of Israel’s story and our own.
Now go and rest for a while, whatever day it is.