Among those who claim to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob no biblical command has aroused as much controversy as the Fourth Commandment— YHWH’s instruction to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8-11). Here, in particular, we find that people’s interpretations of Y’shua’s teaching are all over the map.
Some argue that Y’shua annulled all of the Ten Commandments but that nine were re-instituted in the New Testament—all except the Sabbath. Some believe that Y’shua replaced the Sabbath with Himself and that He is now our “rest.” Some believe that no set Sabbath at all is needed today and we are free to rest or worship on any day we choose to make our Sabbath.
Regardless of which argument one uses, an overwhelming portion of traditional Christianity believes that Sunday, the first day of the week, has replaced the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week.
Can we find support for these views in Y’shua’s practice or teaching? In light of Y’shua’s clear teaching on the permanence of YHWH’s laws, what do we find when it comes to His attitude toward the Sabbath day?
In studying the Gospels, one of the first things we should notice is that Y’shua’s custom was to attend the synagogue for worship on YHWH’s Sabbaths (Luke 4:16). This was His regular practice. On this particular occasion, He even announced His mission as Messiah to those in the synagogue that day.
Interestingly, we later find that Paul’s custom was also to worship and teach in the synagogues on the Sabbath day (Acts 17:2-3). Neither he nor Y’shua ever so much as hinted to their listeners that they needn’t be there or that they should worship on a different day!
Confrontations over how, not whether, to keep the Sabbath
Where many people jump to wrong conclusions about Y’shua and the Sabbath is in His confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees. These confrontations were never over whether to keep the Sabbath—only over how it should be kept. There is a crucial difference between the two! For example, Y’shua boldly challenged the Jews concerning their interpretation of Sabbath observance by performing healings on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6).
According to the Pharisees, rendering medical attention to someone, unless it was a matter of life and death, was prohibited on the Sabbath. And since none of these healings involved a life-and- death situation, they thought Y’shua was breaking the Sabbath. But as the Savior, Y’shua understood the purpose of the Sabbath, that it was a perfectly appropriate time to bring His message of healing, hope and redemption to humanity and to live that message through His actions.
To make His point, Y’shua asked the Pharisees the question, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4). He exposed their hypocrisy in that they saw nothing wrong with working to rescue an animal that fell into a pit on the Sabbath day, or watering an animal on that day, yet they were condemning Him for helping a human being—whose worth was far greater than that of any animal—on the Sabbath (Luke 13:15-17; Matthew 12:10-14).
He was rightfully angry at their inability to see that they placed their own traditions and interpretations over the true purpose of Sabbath observance (Mark 3:5). They were so spiritually blind that they hated Him for exposing their distortions of YHWH’s commands (verse 6).
On one occasion Y’shua’s disciples as they walked through a field on the Sabbath day, picked handfuls of grain so they would have something to eat. The disciples weren’t harvesting the field; they were merely grabbing a quick snack to take care of their hunger. But the Pharisees insisted this was not lawful. Y’shua used an example from Scripture to show that the spirit and intent of the law were not broken and that YHWH’s law allowed for mercy (Mark 2:23-26).
In this context, Y’shua gives the true purpose of the Sabbath. “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath,” He said (verse 27). The Pharisees had reversed the priorities of the law of YHWH. They had added so many meticulous regulations and traditions to the Sabbath commandment that trying to keep it as they demanded had become an enormous burden for people rather than the blessing YHWH had intended it to be (see Isaiah 58:13-14).
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