The Third Commandment Lesson 7
The Sabbath in the Gospels and Acts
We will look at the Sabbath controversies in the Gospels to see how the Gospel writers portrayed Jesus in reference to the Sabbath. We will examine these texts to see whether Jesus is shown to have broken the Sabbath command as given in the Torah or whether he simply broke the halakic interpretations of the Sabbath.
The Halakah was developed to guide the Jews in areas where the scriptural text was not explicit. The Halakah began to be developed after the Exile in the closing days of the prophetic movement. With the lack of an authoritative word from God, the Jews could not always determine God’s will on the basis of scriptural text alone. Thus, a need existed to interpret and apply the past revelation of God’s will in various situations that confronted the Jewish community. As the process continued, the oral decisions of generations of Jewish teachers were codified,(that is arranged in to a system of laws and rules), in the Mishnah.
Definition of Mishnah: An authoritative collection of exegetical material embodying the oral tradition of Jewish law and forming the first part of the Talmud.
Definition of Talmud: The collection of Jewish law and tradition consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara
Definition of Gemara: A rabbinical commentary on the Mishnah, forming the second part of the Talmud.
Definition of Torah: The law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures.
The Torah was not explicit in many areas, especially when dealing with Sabbath observance. Scripture gave little detailed guidance of how to keep the Sabbath, and a substantial body of tradition developed that showed the Jews what they could do and could not do on the Sabbath.
Sabbath controversies in Mark
And it came to pass again, as the Lord walked through the corn fields on the Sabbath, that his disciples began to go forward, and to pluck the ears of corn.
24 And the Pharisees said to him: Behold, why do they on the Sabbath day that which is not lawful?
25 And he said to them: Have you never read what David did when he had need, and was hungry himself, and they that were with him?
26 How he went into the house of God, under Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the loaves of shewbread, which was not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave to them who were with him?
27 And he said to them: The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.
28 Therefore the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath also.
In the last part of this chapter we come to a Sabbath Saturday in the fields. Then in chapter three it begins with the Sabbath Saturday inside the synagogue. We see these two incidents in Matthew and in Luke. It is very important because it was on this question of the Sabbath Saturday that He broke with the religious rulers. From this time on, they sought His death.
He claims in this incident that He is the Lord of the Sabbath day. The question of course, arises: did he really break the Sabbath in either instance? When He healed the poor man with the withered hand in Mark chapter 3, did he break the Sabbath law? Absolutely he did not. He came to fulfill the Law.
Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.
But here we find that he is giving an interpretation of this. He reveals that that He, as the Son of Man, is the Lord of the Sabbath day, and he had authority from His father to interpret the Law.
During his life, Christ interpreted the law, as in the case of the disciples picking grain (Mark 2:23-28) ,and the man with the withered hand . He exercised this power this authority, in his human capacity as the Messiah or Son of man, telling us, "the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath" (Mark 2:28), which is why Saint Matthew himself explains that God "had given such power to men"(Matthew 9:8).
Since he would not always be with the Church visibly, Christ gave this power to other men so the Church, which is the continuation of his presence throughout time (Matthew 28:20), would be able to interpret and apply rules about the Sabbath day as well which day should be our Sabbath day, to future generations. He gave his power to the apostles, and it was a power that could be passed on to their successors and agents, since the apostles wouldn’t always be on earth either, but people would still be sinning.
God had sent Jesus with the power and authority over the Sabbath day, but after his resurrection Jesus told the apostles, "He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. (John 20:21–23).
Christ told the apostles to follow his example: "As the Father hath sent me, I also send you." (John 20:21). Just as the apostles were to carry Christ’s message to the whole world, so they were to carry his that same message: "Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven." (Matthew 18:18).
This power was understood as coming from God: "But all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Christ; and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation." (2 Corinthians 5:18). Indeed, confirms saint Paul, "We are Christ’s ambassadors" (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Some say that any power given to the apostles died with them. Not so. Some powers must have, such as the ability to write Scripture. But the powers necessary to maintain the Church as a living, spiritual society had to be passed down from generation to generation. If they ceased, the Church would cease, except as a quaint abstraction. Christ ordered the apostles to, "Going therefore, making disciples of all nations." It would take much time. And he promised them assistance: "behold I am with you all through the days that are coming, until the consummation of the world." (Matthew 28:19–20).
Now we turn our attention to how the Sabbath is mentioned in the book of Acts. The Sabbath is referred to in the following places in Acts.
Acts 1:12: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, a Sabbath day’s journey away.”
Acts 13:27: For they that inhabited Jerusalem, and the rulers thereof, not knowing him, nor the voices of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, judging him have fulfilled them.
Acts 13:42, 44: “And as they went out, they desired them, that on the next Sabbath, they would speak unto them…. The next Sabbath day, the whole city almost came together, to hear the word of God.”
Acts 15:21: “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him in the synagogues, where he is read every Sabbath. ”
Acts 16:13: “And upon the Sabbath day, we went forth without the gate by a river side, where it seemed that there was prayer; and sitting down, we spoke to the women that were assembled.”
Acts 17:2: “And Paul, according to his custom, went in unto them; and for three Sabbath days he reasoned with them out of the scriptures:”
Acts 18:4: “And he,[Paul],reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, bringing in the name of the Lord Jesus; and he persuaded the Jews and the Greeks.”
Most of these scriptures show the apostles beginning to preach the gospel in the Jewish synagogues, both to the Jews and to Gentiles who had assembled there. It would have been natural for Jewish Christians to have remained in the synagogues until they were forced out, perhaps near the end of the first century.
Of interest here is the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15 about what was required of Gentile converts. Saturday Sabbath observance is not listed among the requirements for the Gentiles that the Jerusalem conference decided upon (Acts 15:20).
If the disciples believed that Christ instituted the power to be Lord of the Sabbath in his stead, we would expect the apostles’ successors—the bishops—and Christians of later years to act as though such power was legitimately and habitually exercised. If, on the other hand, being able to change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday based on the authority given to the Church over the Sabbath was what Fundamentalists term it, an "invention," and if it was something foisted upon the young Church by ecclesiastical or political leaders, we’d expect to find records of protest. In fact, in early Christian writings we find no sign of protests. Quite the contrary. We find Sabbath Sunday was accepted as part of the deposit of faith handed down from the apostles.
Quotes and Writings of the Early Fathers on the subject of The Sabbath:
225 AD The Didascalia - "On the first day of the week [Sunday] let there be service, and the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and the oblation [Sacrifice of the Mass], because on the first day of the week our Lord rose from the place of the dead, and on the first day of the week he arose upon the world, and on the first day of the week he ascended up to heaven, and on the first day of the week he will appear at last with the angels of heaven"
350 AD Apostolic Constitution: Be not careless of yourselves, neither deprive your Savior of His own members, neither divide His body nor disperse His members, neither prefer the occasions of this life to the word of God; but assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord's house: in the morning saying the sixty-second Psalm, and in the evening the hundred and fortieth, but principally on the Sabbath-day. And on the day of our Lord's resurrection, which is the Lord's day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent Him to us, and condescended to let Him suffer, and raised Him from the dead. Otherwise what apology will he make to God who does not assemble on that day to hear the saving word concerning the resurrection, on which we pray thrice standing in memory of Him who arose in three days, in which is performed the reading of the prophets, the preaching of the Gospel, the oblation of the sacrifice, the gift of the holy food?
The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 8-10 (c. 110 A.D.)
"Do not be deceived by strange doctrines or antiquated myths, since they are worthless. For if we continue to live accordance with Judaism, we admit that we have not received grace. For the most godly prophets lived in accordance with Christ Jesus. This is why they were persecuted, being inspired as they were by His grace in order that those who are disobedient might be fully convinced that there is one God who revealed Himself through Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word which came forth from silence, who in every respect pleased Him who sent Him. If, then, those who had lived in antiquated practices came to newness of hope, no longer keeping the Sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord's day, on which our life also arose through Him and His death (which some deny), the mystery through which we came to believe, and because of which we patiently endure, in order that we might be found to be disciples of Jesus Christ, our only teacher, how can we possibly live without Him, whom even the prophets, who were His disciples in the Spirit, were expecting as their teacher? Because of this He for whom they rightly waited raised them from the dead when He came. Therefore let us not be unaware of His goodness. For if He were to imitate the way we act, we are lost. Therefore, having become His disciples, let us learn to live in accordance with Christianity. For whoever is called by any other name than this one does not belong to God. Throw out, therefore, the bad leaven, which has become stale and sour, and reach for the new leaven, which is Jesus Christ. Be salted with Him, so that none of you become rotten, for by your odor you will be examined. It is utterly absurd to profess Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism. For Christianity did not believe in Judaism, but Judaism in Christianity, in which "every tongue" believed and "was brought together" to God."
Epistle of Barnabas 15:8-9 (c. 130 A.D.)
"Finally, He says to them: 'I cannot bear your new moons and sabbaths.' You see what He means: it is not the present sabbaths that are acceptable to Me, but the one that I have made; on that Sabbath, after I have set everything at rest, I will create the beginning of an eighth day, which is the beginning of another world. This is why we spend the eighth day ( a reference to Sunday) in celebration, the day on which Jesus both arose from the dead and, after appearing again, ascended into heaven."
The Didache (or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) 14:1 (c. 70 A.D.)
"On the Lord's own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure."
Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 27 (c.315A.D.)
"The Ebionites cherished low and mean opinions of Christ. For they considered Him a plain and common man, and justified only by His advances in virtue, and that He was born of the Virgin Mary, by natural generation. With them the observance of the law was altogether necessary, as if they could not be saved, only by faith in Christ and a corresponding life. These, indeed, thought on the one hand that all of the epistles of the apostles ought to be rejected, calling him an apostate from the law, but on the other, only using the gospel according to the Hebrews, they esteem the others as of little value. They also observe the Sabbath and other discipline of the Jews, just like them, but on the other hand, they also celebrate the Lords days very much like us, in commemoration of His resurrection."
Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 178 A.D.)
"The duty of celebrating the mystery of the resurrection of our Lord may be done only on the day of the Lord."
The First Apology of Justin, Chapter 67
"And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things ... But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead."
The Church's teaching on how we should fulfill our Sabbath Sunday obligations.