Summary: In this message I consider what Sabbath meant to First Century Jews, how the first followers of Christ regarded Sabbath, and the implications for today’s Church.
NEVER IN A MONTH OF SUNDAYS
How do you spend your Sundays? Oh, I know that you usually come to church in the morning – that’s not in question. But what else do you do on Sundays, on the Sabbath? Perhaps, you go out for a family walk; or, wash the car; or, go shopping; or, maybe even go out to work? However we may spend our Sundays, this morning I intend to take a closer look at how JESUS approached the Sabbath and consider the implications for us 21st century Christians. So, let’s initially consider …
THE SABBATH IN ITS JEWISH CONTEXT
First of all, it’s worth remembering that the Jewish Sabbath is not the same as the Christian Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, was – and still is – the seventh day of the week, Saturday; and, as such, it marks the seventh day of creation that’s described in Genesis, chapter 2, verses 2 and 3:
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 that He had done.
Over the course of many, many centuries, the Jewish people have observed the Sabbath in three very significant ways:
• as a celebration of the very special relationship existing between Israel and God;
• as an imitation of God’s own resting after the work of creation; and
• as a remembrance of the relief that God gave them, when He rescued them from slavery in Egypt.
For Jewish people, the observance of the Sabbath has always been an integral part of their identity and is enshrined in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. So, in the Book of Exodus, we find that the fourth of the Ten Commandments says:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…
On the Sabbath, Jews not only refrained from work, but also gathered together in synagogues for worship – they would pray, listen to Scripture and hear a sermon, so the Sabbath was not only a day of rest, but also a day of worship.
For the first followers of Christ, the Jewish Sabbath was equally important – because they were, of course, Jews themselves! So, we read in the Acts of the Apostles that Paul regularly went to the synagogues on the Sabbath to share the gospel with worshippers – for instance, in Acts 13, we read that Paul and Barnabas went to a synagogue and were invited to bring a word of encouragement, whereupon Paul preached the Good News about Jesus Christ to them. However, it seems that the early Church themselves started gathering for worship each Sunday – the day of Christ’s resurrection and the first day of the week of creation (the day upon which God had said, “Let there be light). So, it seems likely that, for a period of time, Christians observed the Sabbath on Saturday and gathered for worship on Sunday – it was many years later that the Christian Sabbath came to be observed on Sunday, probably in order that Christians might dissociate themselves from Jews.
It’s clear, then, that the Sabbath that Jesus celebrated was the Jewish Shabbat – Saturday – and yet, as you may have gathered from our reading, His approach to it differed from some other pious Jews. Let’s take a look at that episode now and see how Jesus declares Himself …
LORD OF THE SABBATH
The gist of the first part of the story is this: one Sabbath day, Jesus and His disciples are walking through some cornfields, and His disciples pick a few ears of corn to eat as they are going along; some Pharisees challenge them, accusing them of breaking the Sabbath by doing this; and Jesus robustly defends them.
But there is more to this than meets the eye. Note, first of all, that at no time is Jesus Himself accused of breaking the Sabbath rules – it is His disciples whose behaviour is questioned. But, of course, their behaviour does reflect back upon Him, their rabbi – He, as their teacher, was held responsible for them. So, then, if He Himself didn’t break Sabbath rules, did He teach His disciples to do just that?
According to the Torah - the Jewish law - picking and eating grain from fields was permissible …
Deuteronomy 23:25 says:
If you enter your neighbour’s cornfield, you may pick the ears with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing corn.