Positive Evidence for Sabbath Observance in the New Testament concluded

Positive Evidence for Sabbath Observance in the New Testament (Concluded)

TO JESUS' affirmation of the Sabbath, in principle, and to the demonstration of this principle in His Sabbath miracles, He added His own personal example. The Gospels repeatedly mention Jesus' personal attendance at the synagogue service. Six of the seven Sabbath miracles occurred in connection with attendance at either the synagogue or the Temple. . .

-Associate Book Editor, Review and Herald at the time this article was written

TO JESUS' affirmation of the Sabbath, in principle, and to the demonstration of this principle in His Sabbath miracles, He added His own personal example. The Gospels repeatedly mention Jesus' personal attendance at the synagogue service. Six of the seven Sabbath miracles occurred in connection with attendance at either the synagogue or the Temple. "Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues" (Matt. 9:35).* "He taught in their synagogues" (Luke 4:15). "He was preaching in the synagogues of Judea" (Luke 4:44). "He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues" (Matt. 4:23; cf. Mark 1:39). He taught "in the synagogue ... at Capernaum" (John 6:59). In "his own country . . . on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue" (Mark 6:1-2). To Caiaphas He said, "I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together" (John 18:20).

Luke relates that when Jesus returned to Nazareth early in His public ministry He "went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day" (Luke 4:16). This, it may be argued, was no more than an act of compliance with Jewish religious custom, and thus of no exemplary significance for Christians. Jesus often taught and healed on the Sabbath as He attended the synagogue. But His attendance was evidently personal as well as in compliance with Jewish custom or as utilizing the opportunity to teach and heal. The Sabbath was His day (Mark 2:28) in a unique sense, and in His role as a human being and as man's exemplar it was His custom to ob serve it. As a man among men He honored the day that as Lord of the Sabbath, He claimed as His own special day.

On the Sabbath when Jesus' body lay in Joseph's tomb, the women who followed Him likewise "rested according to the commandment" (Luke 23:56). As pious Jews and as devout followers of Jesus it would be strange to find them, doing otherwise.

Paul's Custom

As the apostle Paul went from city to city he customarily began his ministry at the Jewish synagogue, where he could expect to find Jews, proselytes, and God-fearing Gentiles assembled. Here was a nucleus of people predisposed to understand and accept his message. At Pisidian Antioch he "went into the synagogue" "on the sabbath day" and addressed the congregation of Jews and God-fearers (Acts 13:14-16). "As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next sabbath" and "the next sabbath almost the whole city gathered together to hear the word of God" (verses 42, 44). "At Iconium," which Paul and Barnabas visited next, "they entered together into the Jewish synagogue, and so spoke that a great company believed, both of Jews and of Greeks" (chap. 14:1). There "they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord," presumably at the synagogue (verse 3).

On his second journey Paul invaded the continent of Europe with the gospel. The Thracian city of Philippi evidently had no synagogue, for "on the sabbath day," Luke relates, "we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together" (chap. 16:13). At Thessalonica "there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures" (chap. 17:1, 2). In Corinth he "argued in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded Jews and Greeks" for "a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them" (chap. 18:4, 11).

According to Acts 17:1, 2 it was Paul's personal habit to attend the synagogue service from Sabbath to Sabbath. The phrase "as was his custom" is in the emphatic position in the sentence, and refers to his going to the synagogue, not to his public discourses. It was his personal custom as a Christian to worship in the synagogue each Sabbath. Luke's repeated mention of Paul's attendance at the synagogues, coupled with his silence about any such practice with respect to the first clay of the week, argues strongly for the seventh day as the recognized and accepted day of worship and rest in apostolic times. If the first day of the week had become the Christian day of worship, it would be incredible that Luke should have cited so many instances of Paul's synagogue attendance on Sabbath, and specifically affirmed such to be Paul's custom, without explaining why he did so, contrary to the presumed Christian practice of worshiping on the first day of the week. Under such circumstances, to omit such an explanation could not but have confused Luke's in tended readers. Luke was too careful a historian to make such a blunder on a matter that would inevitably, in his day, have been a major issue.

The Council in Jerusalem

The decision of the Jerusalem Council about A. D. 49 is sometimes cited as proof that the Sabbath was not to be considered binding on Gentile Christians: "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourself from these, you will do well" (Acts 15:28, 29).

The major question at issue in the council was whether Gentile converts to Christianity should be expected to comply with Jewish ritual requirements. Paul took the position that food "sacrificed to idols" that is, presented to heathen deities for their blessing was not thereby rendered less acceptable to a Christian. In effect, the idol blessing was an ancient substitute for modern refrigeration. Nevertheless, Paul recommended that Christians not partake of such food in the presence of unenlightened fellow believers whose sensibilities might thereby be offended (1 Cor. 8). The request that Gentile believers not eat food offered to idols did not per se involve a question of moral principle.

A Jew in apostolic times would have been scandalized as much by Gentile Christians breaking the Sabbath as by their eating food blessed by idols. Yet no New Testament writer suggests that Gentile converts observe the Jewish Sabbath out of deference for their less sophisticated Jewish brethren. Nonmention of the Sabbath at the Jerusalem Council, if indeed it had been an issue, would have been incredible under such circumstances. If the Jews were scrupulously observing the Sabbath when they ought to have been observing the first day of the week, Gentile converts would doubtless have been counseled to humor them in this also.

The expression "from blood and from what is strangled" is probably a hendiadys: "from blood, that is, from what is strangled. The proscription of blood was a specific provision of the Pentateuch (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 17:10-14). It is worthy of note that the first two conciliar requirements had to do with food: it was not to be offered to idols, and it must be bloodless. But "the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17); ritual dietary requirements are not the essence of Christianity. If silence at Jerusalem about the Sabbath is to be construed as meaning that the apostles did not require Sabbath observance an argument from silence how about all of the other moral and religious matters on which the council was silent? For instance, is silence here about baptism to be considered evidence that baptism was no longer to be required of converts to the faith?

The third council requirement called on Gentile converts to "abstain ... from unchastity." "Unchastity" covers a much broader range of practices than "adultery," with which the seventh command of the Decalogue is concerned. Evidently, unchastity was so common among Gentiles that the council felt constrained to enter this specific caveat. It was not a ritual matter, however, and thus not specifically on the agenda of the council (see Acts 15:1, 2, 5, 10). The council code of conduct for Gentile believers was obviously never intended to be comprehensive, but to placate pious Jewish Christians on specific points of conduct they found nettlesome.

Under the specific agenda the council was convened to consider, Gentile observance of the first day of the week instead of the seventh would certainly have been a point of bitter contention, and discussion on this point could not have been avoided. The fact that it was not even mentioned is the best possible evidence that no such practice existed among Gentile Christians at that time.

The fourth chapter of Hebrews noted that "God rested [ceased] on the seventh day from all his works" (verse 4) as evidence that "his [creative] works were finished from the foundation of the world" (verse 3). God had reached His objective. His chosen people, however, had not yet entered into the "rest," or cessation, He intended for them. They had not yet attained to His purpose for them. "So then," the argument concludes, "there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God," and "whoever enters God's rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his" (verse 9, 10). He attains to God's objective for him. The Sabbath is thus presented as a token of the rest of soul the Christian finds in Christ (cf. Matt. 11:28-30). This reference to the Sabbath in Hebrews 4 is illustrative and neutral. It is no argument either for or against apostolic practice with respect to the Sabbath.

Summary and Conclusion

The New Testament explicitly affirms that Jesus followed the practice of attending the synagogue service on the Sabbath day, that the women who followed Him observed the Sabbath day according to the commandment, and that Paul customarily worshiped in the synagogue on the Sabbath. There is no direct evidence of Sabbath observance apart from Jewish religious observances or from use of the synagogue as a forum for teaching. But repeated mention of Christians worshiping on the seventh day of the week as a day of religious observance, together with the fact that no mention is made of the religious observance of the first day of the week, implies that apostolic Christians were accustomed to worship on the seventh day. Had Paul and other Gen tile-oriented Christian evangelists been instructing their converts to worship on the first day rather than the seventh, the Sabbath would inevitably have become a point of bitter contention with the Judaizers. In the context of ardent Jewish devotion to the seventh day, complete silence as to any such controversy constitutes additional prima-facie evidence for Gentile Christian observance of the Sabbath.


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-Associate Book Editor, Review and Herald at the time this article was written

December 1969

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