Why Change the Sabbath?

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

The seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates.  For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy.
The seventh day is Saturday, and the Jews continue to observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday till sundown Saturday to this day.

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

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took 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. 

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.

Of all the things cultures conserve most carefully–of all that they are most committed to cultivating–among the most important are ritual and time.  For several thousand years, in the midst of a bewildering variety of geographic locations and civilizations–even as their own language and cultural practices changed in myriad ways–the Jews have never forgotten which day is the sabbath.  The observance of the sabbath is written into the Ten Commandments and the story of creation itself, and was sustained in Jesus’ time, as it is now, as a profoundly countercultural act with little or no support from the surrounding society.  And yet, within a few years of Jesus’ death, we have clear evidence… of a group of largely or exclusively Jewish believers, living within sight of the temple no less, who have shifted their primary day of worship from the seventh to the first. 

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.

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