For a NT example of a special Sabbath – also referred to in the KJV as a “high day” – that had been established by God through Moses as part of the “handwriting of ordinances” of the OT, and which seldom (that is, only once every seven years) – coincided with the seventh-day weekly Sabbath, we turn to the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion and entombment.
Reading from John’s gospel, chapter 19, verses 28-37:
Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crossed during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”
(The first quotation, “Not one of his bones will be broken,” can be found in three places in the OT: Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; and Psalm 34:20. The second quotation comes from the OT book of Zechariah, chapter 12, verse 10.)
The scene that the Apostle John was recounting was that of Jesus’ dying moment on the cross. When John wrote of Jesus giving up his spirit in death, on the day of Preparation, he was referring to the day on which Jewish families slaughtered a lamb in preparation for the ensuing observance of the Feast of Passover. How ironic that Jesus’ crucifixion was on that day.
When John went on to say that the following day was to be a special Sabbath, he was distinguishing it apart from the weekly Sabbath. As noted, special Sabbaths generally did not coincide with the seventh day of the week, that is, the weekly Sabbath. Their purpose was to mark the beginning of a special religious observance.
Further on in John’s gospel it becomes apparent that Jesus’ resurrection, 3 nights and 3 days after his body’s late-afternoon entombment on the day of Preparation, had already taken place when the two Marys visited the tomb near dawn on the first day of the week – Sunday – the day following the weekly Sabbath.
The point is that there were other days designated as Sabbaths that were not at all associated with the seventh day of the week.
When, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul made reference to the unhealthy tendency of some in their assemblies to judge each other by the food they ate, or according to which religious festivals they favored, or which Sabbaths they deemed most important, and so on, he was referring to the Law of Moses, not to the Ten Commandments, and not to the seventh-day Sabbath that God had declared holy from the time of creation.
As we’ve previously observed, Paul and the other apostles observed the seventh-day Sabbath throughout their lives and ministries, as had Jesus before them. Nothing in the Bible suggests otherwise.
Moses had been mediator of the Old Covenant and Israel was commanded to keep the Ten Commandments and the law of their mediator (the book of the law, or handwriting of ordinances), but Jesus, by His death, ushered in a New Covenant, in which Christians no longer have to obey the law of Moses, yet in the spirit of love do obey the Law of our mediator – indeed, our Savior – Jesus Christ.
The Ten Commandments represent the core of what Jesus taught during his time on earth, and He elaborated and even expanded upon them in His teachings as seen in each of the NT gospels.
Yes, we as Christians lovingly obey the Ten Commandments and the testimony and teachings of Jesus.
Moses’ ministration (or process of governing), the Bible tells us, was a ministration of the “letter,” and Christ’s ministration is a ministration of the “Spirit.”
The change of ministrations did not change one word of the Ten Commandments.
The law given through Moses, with its system of animal sacrifices for sin, could not take away sin but was a “schoolmaster,” we are told, to bring us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. That law, with its many sacrifices, was a type and a shadow of the one sacrifice, or death, of Jesus that does take away sin. When Jesus died, the old system and its animal sacrifices ended. It was abolished at the cross.
The Apostle Paul writes poignantly about this in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, verses 11-22:
…remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (that done in the body by the hands of men) – remember that at that time you sere separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Finally, the Bible speaks of the law being written on our hearts. What does that mean?
What is obedience from the heart, and how is that different from obedience out of compulsion?
The OT prophet Hosea spoke these words from God: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
Later, in the NT, James would urge his readers to: Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12-13)
Under Moses’ ministration he was to teach, or enforce obedience to the Ten Commandments and the administrative law, the Book of the Law. In contrast now, the Spirit of God changes the hearts of repentant believers and writes God’s holy Law in their hearts as was promised under the New Covenant. Christ, though the agency of the Holy Spirit, dwells in the hearts of Christians enabling us to maintain a life of obedience to both God’s Law and the Gospel. What a miracle!
The NT letter to the Hebrews, chapter 9, verses 1-15, provides us with a contrast between the two covenants, Old and New:
Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered Ark of the Covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.
When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.
When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
Chapter 10 of Hebrews goes on the relate the following:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me: with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God!'”
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offering and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:1-14)
Thanks be to God for the New Covenant through His Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ! But the New Covenant did not abolish God’s eternal law, embodied in His Ten Commandments, written with His own finger. Nor did it abolish God’s seventh-day Sabbath, which remains as Holy today as it was when He “blessed the seventh day and made it holy” at the end of His week of creating.
We conclude this segment with the following passage from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, verses 28-34:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
Jesus never denounced God’s Ten Commandments, nor did He abolish God’s seventh-day Sabbath. Rather, He magnified them, elaborated on them, and taught us how they were always meant to be regarded. And in this New Covenant which He has given us, he writes them in our hearts.
As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
The statement is as true today as it was then.
In our next segment we will begin to examine when, why and how so many Christians stopped honoring God’s seventh-day Sabbath.