The relationship between the testaments: Law and Sabbath

So far, we have looked at the relationship between the testaments in general and as it applies to church. As a further case study, we will look briefly at how the relationship between the testaments affects our view of the law and, in particular, the Sabbath.

The place of the Law in the Christian life is a complex subject. It is not made any easier by the variety of uses of the word ‘law’ in the New Testament. In the New Bible Dictionary article on law, John Murray lists six separate uses of ‘law’ within the New Testament.

Here is not the place to discuss the intricacies of the Bible’s use of the word ‘law’. For the purposes of this article, we will use ‘law’ to mean the commands and requirements of the Torah, which Israel was required to keep as part of their covenant relationship with God.

As Christians, we want to know if we are still required to keep the requirements of the law. If so, to what extent? We sense that the full ceremonial and ritual commands no longer apply to us, but what about the so-called moral sections (such as the Ten Commandments)? Are they still applicable? Is it possible to distinguish between the moral, legal and ceremonial aspects of the law?

These are the kinds of questions that bother Christians from time to time—especially in connection with a particular issue such as the Sabbath.

An obsolete law?

There is a consistent strain of teaching in the New Testament that the Old Testament law, with all its rules, is no longer binding on Christians. The law was a gaoler or custodian that was put in charge until Christ came (Gal 3:23-24). Now that Christ has come, we are no longer children in the custody of a guardian; we now have the full rights of sons. We are now free of the law (Gal 4:1-7).

The writer to the Hebrews is also emphatic that the commands and regulations of the Mosaic law are no longer applicable to Christians. We are participants in a new, infinitely superior covenant. We have a better priest, a better tabernacle and a better sacrifice—Jesus. Furthermore, in the new covenant (which was prophesied by Jeremiah), the law is written on our hearts, instead of on slabs of stone. The old covenant has been made “obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (Heb 8:10-13). “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming, not the realities themselves” (Heb 10:1 cf. Col 2:17).

It is worth pointing out, however, that the Old Testament is not dismissed as a source of instruction for new covenant Christians. Although the gospel is usually the basis for ethical instruction, the Old Testament law is occasionally appealed to: the Deuteronomic command not to muzzle the ox is applied to Christian preachers (1 Cor 9); the Exodus is recounted as a warning not to “set our hearts on evil things as they did” (1 Cor 10:1-11).

Traditionally, Reformed theology (reflected, for example, in Presbyterianism) has emphasized this function of the law as a rule of life for Christians. In Reformed theology, the law has three uses:

  • to restrain sin and promote righteousness in the world at large
  • to bring man under the conviction of sin and so lead him to Christ
  • as a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of salvation·(see, for example, L Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth, p. 614).

The third use of the law—as being normative for Christian behaviour—is applied (somewhat selectively) to the Old Testament law to yield obligations for the Christian life. The Sabbath, for example, is seen as a norm of Christian behaviour, although its observance is changed to Sunday, ‘the Lord’s day’.

Other post-Reformation groups such as the Seventh Day Baptists (and their descendants, the Seventh Day Adventists), insisted that Sabbath-keeping should involve Saturday Observance, not Sunday. And still other descendants of the Reformation took a freer attitude, and regarded one day as good as any other.

As an illustration of how the Old Testament law is to be applied to New Testament Christians, the Sabbath is a case in a point. Let us trace the ‘Sabbath’ theme through the Bible, and see how the relationship between the testaments illuminates our understanding of how ‘Sabbath’ applies to us today.

The end of creation

When we reach verse 26 of Genesis 1 and the creation of Man, we have good reason to believe that the story has reached its climax. At the pinnacle of creation stands mankind—male and female, created in the image of God to rule the creation. Man is the pinnacle, but not the end point.

By the seventh day, God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Gen 2:1-2)

What happens on the last day of creation? God rests. Far from being an anticlimax, this tells us the end point–the goal to which all creation is heading: rest.

In the history of Israel, ‘rest’ and the ‘seventh day’ are recurring themes. (‘Sabbath’ is the Hebrew word for ‘rest’.)

The pattern of creation is used as the basis of the ‘rests’ prescribed for Israel—resting on the seventh day, the seventh year and the seven-times-seventh year (the Jubilee). These rests were to be times of refreshment and blessing and generosity—when Israel remembered that they were God’s people. The Sabbath/rest served as a covenant sign that they were God’s people (see Ex 23:10-12; Lev 25:8-17).

It was also a reminder that God had rescued them out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. This land that they inherited was referred to as ‘God’s rest’ because in it, they received rest from oppression and enemies, and enjoyed the bounty of a land flowing with milk and honey (e.g., Deut 12:7-11).

Nevertheless, in Psalm 95, David still looks for a Sabbath rest for God’s people. He warns his people, who were already resident in Canaan, not to be disobedient lest they fail to enter God’s rest. In other words, he was looking for some other rest—one more profound than the physical land of Canaan. The New Testament takes this idea up in Hebrews 3-4.

Jesus and the Sabbath

As we turn to the New Testament and the Gospels, we are struck by how much conflict was generated by the issue of the Sabbath. The Pharisees levelled the charge of Sabbath-breaking at Jesus more than once, and his replies were typically forceful and enigmatic (e.g. Mark 2:23-3:6).

The Pharisees made a crucial mistake in applying the law about the rest day. We have seen so far that the Sabbath was meant to be a ‘good’ day—a day for rest and refreshment, for blessing and enjoyment. The Sabbath was to be a day when Israel remembered that they were God’s people, rescued out of Egypt. The Pharisees turned this day of joyful remembrance into a day of mean, nitpicking legalism. They were so worried about not working, they lost sight of what the command was really about.

However, we Christians should not cast the first stone. This same kind of legalism has characterized our attitude to the Sabbath. We are the ones who turned “Thou shalt not work on Saturday” into “Thou shalt not play on Sunday”. Apart from changing the day (from the seventh to the first day of the week), we have often been guilty in the past of the error of the Pharisees: we have forgotten that the Sabbath was a ‘rest’ day—a day of refreshment and enjoyment, a day for enjoying all the good things that God has made, and for remembering his mercy to us.

Jesus also did nothing for his relationship with the Pharisees by proclaiming himself the ‘Lord of the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:28). That is, Jesus saw himself as being in charge of God’s rest. (Remember, ‘Sabbath’ means ‘rest!’) He was the one who would usher in the rest that God’s people had been long awaiting–the time of blessing, the time of feasts and good times. “Come to me”, said Jesus, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

Jesus came to lead God’s people to the ultimate rest—heaven. This is the theme of Hebrews 3-4, the most extended New Testament discussion of the subject. The writer reminds us that the Sabbath comes from creation and, unlike the other six days of creation, it does not end. There remains a Sabbath rest for God’s people, and we who have believed are going to enter it if we continue to trust God.

Just as God took the Israelites out of Egypt and led them to their ‘Sabbath rest’ (the Promised Land), so he has rescued us from the slavery of sin and brought us to the verge of entering his final and great rest—heaven. There, we too will rest from our work, just as God has rested from his. The people of Israel failed to enter the rest because of their disobedience, and the writer warns his Christian readers not to fall into the same trap.

‘Rest’, then, is the goal of creation. It is where creation is heading. There is more to life than work and this world. There is the world to come where man will rest with God.

Applying the Sabbath

By taking proper account of the relationship between the testaments, we can put the Bible’s teaching about the Sabbath into its right context. For us, the Sabbath is not simply a slightly altered version of the Old Testament weekly observance. That law has been fulfilled. The reality has arrived—the reality of entering God’s rest through the death of Jesus.

Does this have any application to our patterns of work and rest? Most certainly, but not in observing a Christianized version of the Old Testament law. The application for us might go something like this.

Our society doesn’t have a good record when it comes to work and rest. We tend to swing between the extremes of workaholism and idleness. Perhaps our most serious failing is the importance we give to work for determining our self-worth. These days, work is the primary source of many people’s satisfaction and fulfilment in life. If their job is uninteresting or unfulfilling, they feel worthless or unimportant. They are their work. Most people would describe themselves in terms of their profession: “I am a doctor”—unless, of course, they are a garbage collector, in which case they might say, “I am a St George supporter”, or “I am a father of three”.

But work isn’t what life or our self-esteem is about. Certainly, we need to work; Paul says that if someone is not prepared to work, they should not eat (2 Thess 3:6-15). But work shouldn’t dominate our priorities and decisions.

In fact, if we take seriously the ideas in this article, our priorities and lifestyle should be dominated by rest, not work. For we are Christians, and Christians are people who have been rescued by Jesus from our slavery to sin and who are looking forward to entering God’s eternal rest. That is where our priorities lie. That is what we live for.

In practical terms, taking a day off each week is an expression of this commitment. It is a little, symbolic taste of heaven. It reminds us that there is more to life than work. Taking a day off is a sign of my commitment to heaven, rather than work and this world.

No particular day is specified as the Christian Sabbath in the New Testament. In fact, in the new age, we are free to consider every day alike (Rom 14:5). We should take a day off each week for the refreshment of our bodies and to acknowledge that there is more to life than work. But there are no laws as to which day it should be and what we should or shouldn’t do on it.

No doubt it is appropriate to meet with God’s people on that day and celebrate together what God has done for us to rescue us from sin and bring us to his rest. But there is no law about this, and there is nothing in the Bible to say that we should meet primarily on Sunday.

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