Should Christians Observe a Day of Rest?
JUNE had been exceptionally rainy. Because of this, an age-old secular tradition was broken during the 1991 Wimbledon tennis championships. For the first time in history, matches were played on a Sunday to make up for lost time. Apart from an occasional stretching of the rules such as this one, Sunday remains a sacred day of rest in England, as well as in many other countries.
Some people observe a different day of rest. Jews worldwide strictly observe the Sabbath from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday. During Sabbath, the aircraft of Israel’s national airline do not fly, and in certain towns public transport does not operate. In Jerusalem traditionalists have certain streets closed off to block all traffic that they consider illicit.
The fact that many religions still observe a weekly day of rest or a sabbath raises several questions. Is Sabbath keeping for Jews only? Why have most religions of Christendom come to accept a different day of rest? Does observance of a weekly day of rest remain a Biblical requirement today?
Has the Sabbath Always Existed?
We find the first Scriptural mention of a sabbath in the book of Exodus. While the Israelites were in the desert, they received manna, a miraculous food, from Jehovah. Each sixth day of the week, they were to gather a double portion because the seventh day was to be “a sabbath to Jehovah,” during which all work was forbidden.—Exodus 16:4, 5, 22-25.
Moreover, Israelites were given the Sabbath to remind them that they had been slaves in the land of Egypt. This reminder would have been of little significance if they had previously respected such a law. Therefore, the regulations governing the Sabbath were given to Israel alone.—Deuteronomy 5:2, 3, 12-15.
Meticulous and Burdensome Practices
Because the Mosaic Law was not very detailed regarding the Sabbath, rabbis over the centuries drew up numerous interdicts, mainly forbidding all forms of work on the Sabbath. According to the Mishnah, the prohibited work was grouped into 39 main categories, such as sewing, writing, and farm work. Many of these regulations are not Bible-based. Citing the Mishnah, the Encyclopædia Judaica acknowledges that they are as “mountains hanging by a hair, for there is little on the subject in the Scriptures yet the rules are many.”
To apply the commandment that a man should not “go out of his place on the seventh day,” a maximum distance was determined, and this was termed the “Sabbath limit.” According to certain sources, it corresponded to two thousand cubits, or about 2,900 feet [900 m]. (Exodus 16:29, King James Version) However, this regulation could be subtly bypassed: The evening before, Sabbath meals could be deposited a distance of two thousand cubits from the house. This location could then be considered an extension of the family home, and another two thousand cubits could be counted from that point.
Many of these man-made restrictions were in force in Jesus’ day. Thus, religious leaders reproached his disciples for having plucked heads of grain to eat as they were passing through grainfields. They were accused of breaking the Sabbath—plucking grain was considered reaping, and rubbing it was viewed as milling or grinding. Jesus denounced their extreme views on several occasions, for they misrepresented the spirit of Jehovah’s law.—Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 13:10-17; 14:1-6; John 5:1-16; 9:1-16.
From a Saturday to a Sunday Sabbath
“Sundays will be kept for serving God devoutly.” Such is the Fourth Commandment on the Sabbath as presented by the Catholic Church. The recently published French Catéchisme pour adultes explains: “The Christian Sunday is celebrated the day after the Sabbath: on the eighth day, that is to say, the first day of the new creation. It adopts the essential elements of the Sabbath but is centered on Christ’s Passover.” How did this changeover from a Saturday to a Sunday sabbath come about?
Even though Sunday was the day on which Jesus was resurrected, for early Christians it was a workday like any other. But a decision by a Laodicean church council (mid-to-late fourth century C.E.) reveals that with the passing of time, the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday was replaced by a “Christian” sabbath on Sunday. This canon “forbade Christians to Judaize and to be idle on the day of the [Jewish] Sabbath, and the Lord’s day [the day of the week on which he was resurrected] was to be honored in a Christian way.” From then on Christendom’s adherents had to work on Saturdays and refrain from work on Sundays. Later, they were required to attend Mass on Sunday.
With the backing of the secular authorities, work on Sundays was soon prohibited throughout Christendom. From the sixth century onward, transgressors were fined or whipped, and their oxen could be confiscated. On occasion, unrepentant sinners could be reduced to servitude.
In a sense, laws relating to acceptable work on Sundays were as complex as traditions governing the Jewish Sabbath. The Dictionnaire de théologie catholique gives lengthy explanations regarding the development of church casuistry and, among the things prohibited, mentions servile work, farm work, legal proceedings, markets, and hunting.
Paradoxically, the Jewish Sabbath was referred to as justification for these prohibitions. The New Catholic Encyclopedia mentions Emperor Charlemagne’s laws regarding Sundays: “The Sabbatarian idea, expressly repudiated by St. Jerome and condemned by the Council of Orléans in 538 as Jewish and non-Christian, was clearly stated in Charlemagne’s decree of 789, which forbade all labor on Sunday as a violation [of the Ten Commandments].” Thus, although it pleased the church to see the civil authorities impose a Sunday day of rest, it allowed this secular arm to justify these restrictions on the basis of a legal foundation it rejected, namely, the Mosaic law concerning the Sabbath.
A Non-Scriptural Stand
Centuries before, several Church Fathers, and Augustine in particular, rightly declared that the Sabbath was a temporary arrangement reserved for the Jews. So doing, those Church Fathers simply adopted what the Christian Greek Scriptures explain, namely, that the Sabbath is an integral part of the Law covenant that was abolished by Jesus’ sacrifice.—Romans 6:14; 7:6; 10:4; Galatians 3:10-14, 24, 25.
In the contemporary Vocabulaire biblique, Protestant theologian Oscar Cullmann is quoted as admitting that “because Jesus came, died, and was resurrected, O[ld] T[estament] festivals have now been fulfilled, and to maintain them ‘means reverting back to the old covenant, as if Christ had never come.’” Having considered this valid point, is it possible to justify compulsory Sabbath observance?
Today, Catholic authors generally seek support at Acts 20:7, which speaks of “the first day of the week” (Sunday), when Paul met with his companions to share a meal with them. However, this was simply a point of detail. Nothing in this text nor in other Bible verses indicates that this account was meant to be an example that was to be followed by Christians, certainly not an obligation. Yes, Sunday observance of a sabbath lacks Scriptural backing.
What Rest Is There for Christians?
Although Christians are not obliged to observe a weekly day of rest, they are nevertheless invited to observe rest of another kind. Paul explains this to his fellow Jewish Christians, saying: “So there remains a sabbath resting for the people of God. . . . Let us therefore do our utmost to enter into that rest.” (Hebrews 4:4-11) These Jews, before becoming Christians, had previously followed the Mosaic Law as scrupulously as they could. Now Paul was no longer encouraging them to seek salvation through works but instead to “rest” from their dead works. Henceforth, they were to have faith in Jesus’ sacrifice, which was the only means by which mankind could be righteous in God’s eyes.
How can we today show the same consideration for God’s viewpoint? Like their fellowmen, Jehovah’s Witnesses, as reasonable humans, appreciate the weekly rest day from secular work that is in force in many countries. This allows them time for family association and refreshment. But more particularly, it has proved to be a period for other Christian pursuits. (Ephesians 5:15, 16) These include meetings and participation in the public ministry, visiting their neighbors to share Biblical information about the approaching time when believing mankind will enjoy earth-wide peace. If you would like to know about this, Jehovah’s Witnesses will be happy to help you, whether that be on Saturday, Sunday, or any other day of the week.
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Jesus kept the Sabbath law perfectly, rather than Jewish traditions
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Christian pursuits provide refreshment on days of rest from secular work