Why don't we still keep the Sabbath? (2)

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: I just read your article Why don’t we still keep the Sabbath? You didn’t address the fact that Jesus and his disciples celebrated feasts, God's holy days… and the Sabbath. We are followers of Jesus, too. So shouldn’t we honor God's holy days as Jesus did? Jesus said, if you love me, keep my commandments.

Now, you made a point that keeping the Sabbath is a sign For Israel, but why can’t it be a sign to us since we are being grafted into the original vine?

Answer: Thank you for this query, too. You’ve made some valid points.

Let me begin by saying that I do not think that the Bible makes a strong case for Sunday worship and that if I were in a position to reinvent Christian customs, I’d have the Lord’s Day on Saturday. But it wouldn’t be the Sabbath per se … not any more than we keep the law per se. If we were keeping the law in any aspect, then we’d be condemned in every aspect (Romans 8:1; James 2:10). So, something important has changed about the Sabbath… but what?

When Jesus died, the Temple veil was ripped in two (Matthew 27:51). That was a potent symbol that the old way of doing things was finished. In my opinion, no other symbols or circumstances have the power to overturn this ominous sign… and the “old” way of doing things included the “Sabbath” way of doing things.

The ripped veil signaled not only the end of animal sacrifices but the end of all those Temple and Sabbath “types” that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Matthew 5:17). So, Sabbath-style Judaism became moot at that point, and I don’t think Christians should walk back “into the Temple” — and perhaps dodging that ripped veil on the way — by honoring the Sabbath as the Sabbath.

Hebrews 6:6 tells us that going back like that would insult the Christ. So why go anywhere near something that is so close to keeping the commandments for salvation's sake? This is especially important in a world where most people think that “being good” gets you into heaven. The truth is that receiving Christ as Savior does that (John 1:12). And the truth is also that attending church does not do that (Titus 3:5).

As to this part of your question: “You didn’t address the fact that Jesus and his disciples celebrated feasts, God's holy days… and the Sabbath. We are followers of Jesus, too. So shouldn’t we honor God's holy days as Jesus did?”

When Jesus was still alive, God’s people were still under the law. Remember, Christianity had not been “invented” yet… so, of course, he and his followers continued to do “Old Testament” things like keeping the Sabbath and making sacrifices well into the New Testament narrative.

We know this because the gospels recorded the “Old Testament” … or the part of it that still existed until the Temple veil ripped, anyway. So, when you think about it, the Old Testament spiritual economy was the platform for virtually the entirety of the gospels. Jesus & Co. were just Jewish people who were doing Jewish things until his death. But the Church is not Israel, and we are not Jews… so we don’t.

Fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection, a new way of doing things — a New Covenant, in fact — would be introduced at the feast of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. This began the Age of Grace (or the Church Age) — and it was punctuated by two things: Jesus’ purposeful removal from this earth, and God’s sending the Holy Spirit to aid us in his work (John 14).

These changes affirm that the old spiritual economy was dead. A people who were under the law did not need an individually indwelling Holy Spirit. I say this because this was new to humanity starting at Pentecost, and it will last until Jesus’ return.

Now, people still played at the old Jewish religion after Jesus died… I mean, they still do today! But just because people do things does not mean that it’s God’s thing that they are doing (Matthew 7:21-23).

Paul continued to honor his Jewish ethnicity even after he turned the focus of his ministry to the Gentiles. He still went to the synagogue, took vows… all that! But this was informed by what he knew to be true about the limits of Judaism… like in Galatians 4:9-10 where he calls things like the old holy days as “weak and miserable forces.”

The first generation Jewish Christians were people in transition. They kept one cultural foot in their heritage… but their hearts were with the Lord. Remember, early Christianity was understood by the culture at large to be a mere sect of Judaism… not its own thing. So, don’t make too much of any lingering appearances of Judaism. Instead, remember the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15. The Church would not require signs like circumcision any longer… and the Sabbath was also a sign to the Jew — just like circumcision… just not to the Gentiles.

As to this part of your question: “Jesus said, if you love me, keep my commandments.”

The previous point plays here also. Jesus was a Jew who was talking to Jews during the Old Testament spiritual economy. He was the Messiah to these people… and not the Christians’ “failing” and dying Savior. (He was this, of course, but this wasn’t revealed at this time.) As such, everything he said and did regarding the Old Testament doings was in an Old Testament context… and as strange as this is to affirm, Jesus Christ was not a Christian… not until after his resurrection, anyway.

Jesus was an observant Jew who kept the Sabbath, who led his disciples in doing so… but who challenged the artificial limits placed on it by the religious establishment. Sabbath-breaking and Sabbath-keeping was the basis of the acutest hypocrisy in the gospels…. where the Pharisees added false minutia to Judaism while omitting the weightier matters of the law (Matthew 23:23).

Do you remember when Jesus boiled the commandments down to two? (Matthew 22:36-40). One could argue that those are the commandments he was telling us to keep… especially with the “love one another” part defined as a new commandment. This was one of his definitive teachings.

Jesus kept the law perfectly (which he needed to do to fulfill it), but in his teachings, he stepped away from the law’s rigidity. His comments on the Sabbath involved the Sabbath serving us… not us serving the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)… and what else would New Covenant Sabbath-keeping be than serving a sacerdotal obligation in the Age of Grace?

As to this part of your question: “Now, you made a point that keeping the Sabbath is a sign For Israel, but why can’t it be a sign to us since we are being grafted into the original vine?”

The image of being grafted into the original vine (Romans 11:11-31) does not support Sabbath-keeping. It is important to note that the Gentiles are not being grafted into Israel in this image. They are being grafted into God’s succor — and that this was the state that Israel previously enjoyed.

Israel is neither the root or the vine; it is merely a branch just like we are… except … well… Israel’s a dead one! This supports the idea that Sabbath-keeping — Israel’s sign as a people — is dead too.

What’s implied in this image is that the vine is growing, and in this stage of its growth, we find some dead branches. But why are they dead? For the same reason, any branch is dead: it rejects the succor offered by the vine.

So, what changed? As the vine matured, so did its nutritional offerings. When the time had fully come, it began offering Jesus Christ, Messiah, as part of that succor. But as a people, the Jews rejected that new spiritual food and they died… but they were still “on” the vine… like a dead branch might remain on the vine. It’s just that neither they nor their religious practices were on it vitally.

In this image, “full inclusion” is what’s at stake for Israel (12). But it’s only going to happen under the terms of the New Covenant… and look at what hanging on to the terms of the Old Covenant brought them. If the Sabbath et al was no longer working even for the Jews, what makes you think it will work for us Christians — and especially in the light of how rejecting God’s revelation and hanging on to old traditions kills its members in this image?

The vine is the general succor of God’s people, and all of God’s people throughout the ages draw nourishment from it. Compared to the Gentiles, Israel had the advantage of being native to this vine… and we are declaredly non-native branches. But look at the image: Israel is dead and we thrive. That’s the brute fact in this image. The notion that they might be grafted back in is a theoretical discussion at this point… which means they are out at this point.

There’s an irony here, too. In a totally separate teaching, Jesus said,

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5, NIV)

I’ve been talking in general terms about God’s succor. But Jesus — the one whom those Jews rejected — is the succor. This was hidden in the ages (Colossians 1:26), but Jesus was very open about it.

All these issues we’ve discussed have been secondary issues. What we believe about the Sabbath vs the Lord’s Day is not a deal-breaker for salvation. But when someone sidles over towards the Old Covenant, he is edging away from the salvation that was complete in Christ… and he would be doing so in the light of some pretty clear instructions not to.

That being said, I don’t think there is a slam-dunk biblical case for either day… and as I said previously, I’d choose Saturday… all things being equal. But I don’t feel strongly enough about this to become a Sabbatarian in practice. I argue “for” Sunday because keeping the Sabbath as the Sabbath is a return to the law… and I’m not sure how well people would do in keeping it as the Lord’s Day instead.

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