Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11).
These are words that God spoke from Mount Horeb. We cannot simply dismiss them as pertaining to another people in another time and place. But isn’t that pretty much what we do when we call Sunday the Sabbath and say we are keeping the Sabbath by refraining from gainful labour and by going to church?
First off, do we read anything at all in the commandment about worship? No. The Law commanded that all males should appear before the Lord in Jerusalem three times a year, at the feasts of Passover, Pentecost (also called Weeks or First Fruits) and Tabernacles. That was it. No other regular public worship was commanded in the Old Testament.
The system of weekly Sabbath services in a synagogue was not commanded in the Old Testament. It developed during the Babylonian captivity and was no doubt the general practice after the return from captivity, although it is never described. Synagogue is a Greek word meaning assembly or meeting place and was the term used in New Testament times. We do find the word synagogue in Psalm 74:8 in our English Bibles, used to translate a Hebrew word elsewhere translated to mean an appointed time, a holy place or a meeting place.
What this commandment does is forbid a believer to do any kind of work, or to benefit from the work of others, be they servants, animals or non-Israelites. Can we claim to do that today? Would we expect God to be satisfied with partial obedience to any of the other commandments?
Yet, when we come to the New Testament, we find Jesus seeming to go out of His way to violate the Sabbath commandment. In the healing of the man blind from birth, recorded in the ninth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus works by spitting on the ground, making mud, smearing it on the man’s eyes. Then He instructs the blind man to work by going to the pool of Siloam and washing his eyes. He could have healed the man’s eyes simply by speaking, as He did on other occasions. But this was a Sabbath day and a teachable moment. The man is healed, expelled from the synagogue and becomes a follower of Jesus. All because he worked on the Sabbath.
In Colossians 2:16-17, the apostle Paul instructs us: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”
So, if the Sabbath was a shadow of things to come, what might those things be? I think Isaiah has the best description of the true meaning of the Sabbath: “If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: Then shalt thou delight thyself in the LORD; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.” (Isaiah 58:13-14).
To honour God, “not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words,” doesn’t that sound like a description of Christian life?
“ That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:7-10).
We are no longer under any bondage to perform certain works, and abstain from others, to earn our salvation. The works we now do are not our own, but the working of God’s Holy Spirit within us. We are free.
This has always been the Anabaptist-Mennonite view of the Sabbath. Menno Simons apparently felt that this was well enough understood that he didn’t need to say much about it. There are only two brief statements in his writings: “… the true Sabbath be kept in Christ by putting off the sinful body of the flesh…”and “They keep and sanctify the Lord’s Sabbath (which is now no longer literal, but spiritual, and never terminating with the true Christians)… by the fear of God, by a clear conscience and unblameable life, in love to God and their neighbours”.
Henry Funk, the first Mennonite Bishop in North America, who died in 1760, summed it up very succinctly and clearly. He wrote:
“Jesus, who was the beginning and author of the sabbath, came to restore the sabbath in its full powers and significance, in order to restore mankind to rest of soul. He offered his own body for the sin which was committed in the garden of Eden and which fell upon all mankind and so bringing unrest of soul upon all mankind. (Isaiah 53; 1 Peter 2:24). Hence the body of the sabbath or the real sabbath was fulfilled in Christ (Colossians 2:16,17), so that now man has true sabbath rest for the soul in Christ.” (Restitution, page 244).