What do we learn about the seventh day, that is, the Sabbath, from the New Testament (NT)? Did things change? After all, doesn’t the NT document the establishment of a New Covenant, different from the Old? Those are a couple of questions to consider.
Yes, there were indeed changes, the most compelling of which was the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth – Messiah – Christ – the Son of Man. Having been foretold or prophesied by the Old Testament, His purpose was to be crucified for the sins of humanity, to be resurrected back to life, reunited with God his Father , and ultimately (someday) to return and judge Earth’s inhabitants, both the living and the resurrected dead. To the righteous He will grant immortality and a home in His eternal kingdom, where God the Father will be all in all. To the wicked He will grant eternal death.
Yes, change occurred, is occurring now, and will occur in the future.
But what, we may ask, was Jesus the Messiah’s practice and teaching concerning the Sabbath when He ministered on the Earth?
The NT confirms that Jesus, even though He said that He Himself was Lord of the Sabbath, honored and observed the Sabbath throughout His life.
Ironically, the religious authorities of the time repeatedly accused Him of breaking the Sabbath law, but in truth Jesus merely was challenging the many radical restrictions religious leaders had imposed concerning the Sabbath over the course of many years.
One Sabbath, according to Mark’s gospel, Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 2:23 – 3:5)
Matthew’s gospel quotes these words of Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
As an Israelite and, more particularly, as a Jew, and still more rightly as the Lord of the Sabbath, it should be no surprise to us that Jesus honored and observed the seventh day, declared Holy since the time of creation. But He had no respect for those who had made it into something it was not intended to be.
Throughout the NT we find Jesus regularly observing the Sabbath. Luke’s gospel records the following occasion in which Jesus traveled back to the town he grew up in, Nazareth:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21)
When the resurrected Jesus left this earth to return to His Father in heaven, He told His disciples:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Although Jesus challenged the oppressive restrictions religious leaders had imposed concerning Sabbath observance, Jesus is never recorded in the Bible as ever having said that the Sabbath Day was no longer Holy, or that the day had been annulled or changed from its original purpose.
No, it seems apparent that on the day Jesus left the earth to return to His Father in Heaven, the Sabbath was still intact, still Holy, as it had been from the time of creation.
Soon, in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit would be poured out on the first members of “the Way,” God’s unstoppable supernatural movement that would become known as Christianity.
In our next segment, we will look into the practice of those earliest Christians and Christian evangelists concerning the seventh day, God’s weekly Sabbath.