The Sabbath Issue

Chapter 2: The Sabbath in the New Testament - Part 2

This predicts Israel will be back in her Land before the final Great Tribulation at the End of the Age, and that Sabbath Observance will continue among the Jewish people, so that the Sabbath will still be a significant part of Israeli society for the end-time generation in the Land of Israel. This does not imply the Sabbath is part of the New Covenant that Jesus introduced, since the prophecies also indicate that Israel as a whole will remain in unbelief concerning her Messiah, until she repents near the end of the Tribulation. After Christ rose and introduced the New Covenant Israel as a whole rejected Him and continued to live under the Old-Covenant, including Sabbath keeping. She continues in this manner today, and will also do so in the future Tribulation. The continuing practice throughout this Age and in the Tribulation of unbelieving Israel trying to maintain the Old-Covenant and its Sabbath Law, tells us nothing about the New Covenant (under which believers today are to operate) and whether the Sabbath Law is part of it; and it certainly tells us nothing about whether believing Gentiles should keep the Sabbath (for it only addresses: “those who are in Judea”). 

However this passage does tell us about how Jesus regarded the Sabbath as temporal Ceremonial Law rather than absolute Moral Law. One of the strict Sabbath regulations was against travelling (Exodus 16:29). In fact, the Rabbis defined how far you could travel, called a ‘Sabbath day’s journey’, which was about a mile. It is used in Acts 1:12: “Then (after Christ’s Ascension from the top of the Mount of Olives) they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount called Olivet, near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey.”
This phrase indicates that their return journey to Jerusalem took place on a Sabbath, but that it complied with the Jewish regulations. Indeed, the distance from the top of the Mt. Olives to Jerusalem is indeed ‘a Sabbath day’s journey.’ 

Acts 1:2,3 tells us that Jesus appeared to the APOSTLES over 40 DAYS leading up to His Ascension: “until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments TO THE APOSTLES whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during 40 DAYS and speaking of the things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
He rose again on Sunday Morning, but His Appearances to the Apostles only began on Sunday Evening (John 20:19-24, Luke 24). Therefore the 40 days came to an end on a Friday Evening, and so Christ ascended on a Friday evening, as the Sabbath was about to begin. Therefore the disciples had to walk back on a Sabbath. 

Since this was only about a mile, they did not break the Sabbath Law. However the journey that Jesus COMMANDED the Jews in the Tribulation to make, in order to escape from the antichrist, is a clear violation of Sabbath Law, if it was to take place on a Sabbath, because it required them to flee to the mountains (of Jordan). They would also have to break the Sabbath Law against carrying loads. 

Now why did Jesus tell them to pray that their: “flight would not be in Winter or on the Sabbath”? It is because both these conditions would obviously make their flight much harder. Winter conditions impede travelling, especially on foot. In Israel, many parts of society shut down on the Sabbath, which would greatly impede a mass evacuation. Notice that Jesus does not say or imply that they cannot or should not flee if it was on a Sabbath, even though they would be breaking the Sabbath Law. He commands them to flee without delay when they see the abomination, whether or not it is a Sabbath. By so doing, He is not only allowing them to break the Sabbath, but also commanding them to break it, if necessary. This would be explained by the Sabbath no longer being operative as a Divine Command. At the very least it means that Jesus did not consider the Sabbath Law to be absolute Moral Law, but lesser Ceremonial Law that can be set aside when necessary, which explains why it is not included in the New Covenant (now that Ceremonial Law is fulfilled in Christ). Thus following this line of logic also leads to the same conclusion that since the Cross (in the Church-Age and in the Tribulation) the Sabbath Law is no longer operative as a Divine Command, which is why the Lord Jesus was free to command Israel to break it in the Tribulation. 

We will see more examples of how Jesus interpreted and applied the Sabbath in Chapter 6: The Sabbath: Moral or Ceremonial Law? 

The Acts of the Apostles. When we turn now to the Book of Acts, most scriptures that mention the Sabbath relate to the continuing practice of Jewish unbelievers (in the Messiah, Yeshua) meeting in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. As a Jew reaching out to Jews, Paul went to the synagogue to preach the Gospel to them. Thus he used it for evangelism. The synagogue was NOT the meeting of the local Church (the gathering of believers of those who believed in Jesus). Those who believed may well have continued to meet in the synagogue for a time for various reasons, but they also met together as a local Church and no passage of scripture says they met on the Sabbath. In fact, it seems that they generally chose to meet on the Saturday evening, which was actually after the Sabbath had closed, at the start of the first day of the week (Acts 20:7,8,11; 1Corinthians 16:2). This was not the result of any command but a matter of convenience and of celebrating Christ’s resurrection, which was on the first day of the week. 

In summary, in Acts there is no apostolic command for believers to observe the Sabbath or to meet on the Sabbath, although many Jewish believers surely chose to continue to do so. The Synagogue meeting was not the same as the Church gathering of believers, and as time went on these two communities increasingly became separate, naturally dividing over the issue of the Messiahship of Jesus. What is most clear and significant is that the non sabbath-keeping Gentiles who were joining the Church in great numbers were never instructed to keep the Sabbath. If believers were still to be under the Old Covenant or if the Sabbath Law still applied in the New Covenant, this necessarily would have been one of the first things that had to be taught to all the new Gentile converts. However, there is a total absence of such apostolic sabbath teaching, both in Acts and in the Epistles.

This is shown most clearly in Acts 15, an Early Church Council that met to discuss whether Gentile believers were required to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses: 

Acts 15:1: “certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

Acts 15:5: “some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them and command them to keep the Law of Moses.”

Some would say that the issue here and in Paul’s related comments in Galatians was limited to circumcision (v1). But this does not bear examination, as verse 5 clearly widens it to the whole Law. You see, circumcision was not just a sign of Jewishness (as the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant), it was also an intrinsic part of the Mosaic Covenant, with new added significance and directions: “The Lord said to Moses, on the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3). Notice that in Acts 15:1 and Acts 15:5 circumcision is related to Moses not Abraham, saying that they are to be: “circumcised according to the custom of Moses” for: “it is necessary to circumcise them and command them to keep the Law of Moses.” Circumcision was an essential part of keeping the Law. It was the sign of submission to the Law of Moses, obliging both Jew and Gentile to keep the whole Law: Galatians 5:3: “Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole Law.” Thus all Gentile converts to Mosaic Judaism had to be circumcised.

Acts 15:24 confirms that the issue was not just circumcision but whether they were under the Law of Moses: “Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and KEEP the LAW” - to whom we gave no such Commandment.” 

So some Jewish believers in Jesus were teaching that Gentile converts had to be circumcised and obey the whole Law of Moses (including the Sabbath) in order to be saved. It was this teaching that Paul so fiercely opposed in Galatians, because it contradicted the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, independent of our works. The Acts 15 Council addressed this vital issue of whether Gentile believers were required to keep the Law.

Peter made a decisive contribution in Acts 15:10: “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a YOKE on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” This Yoke was obviously not just circumcision, but the whole Law of Moses. His point was that it would be wrong to put the Gentiles believers under the yoke of the Law of Moses, which by implication included the Jewish Observance of the Sabbath. 

James’ final authoritative decision in Acts 15:19-20 agreed: “Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God (by requiring them to submit to the Law of Moses), but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.” It is clear that Gentiles are not required to be under the Law of Moses. This is seen from the Food Law that was applied to them. They were permitted to eat all meats, with the only exception being: “to abstain from things strangled and from blood”, which is the very law that God had previously given to all nations through the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9:4). The other 2 commands against idolatry and immorality are included because they are part of the universal Moral Law, which Gentiles ought to obey, although breaking these commands were widespread in their culture. But Gentiles are not to abstain from these things because they are subject to the Law of Moses, but because they are subject to the Moral and Noahic Law. 

Since Gentiles were not accustomed to keeping the Sabbath, if they were expected to observe the Sabbath Law, he surely would have mentioned it here, but he does not. On the contrary, the next verse, which concludes the judgement of James, clearly implies that Gentiles are not under the Law of Moses, including the Sabbath. 

Acts 15:21: “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” Here he distinguishes between the local Church and the Jewish Synagogue (which meets each Sabbath). He is saying those who want to be instructed in the Law of Moses can get that from the Synagogue on the Sabbath, but that is not the teaching of the Church. Here he even mentions the Sabbath day, but gives no hint that the believing Gentiles are required to keep it.

Acts 15:24-29 gives us the letter they sent to all the Gentile believers, summarising their conclusions: “Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the Law” - to whom we gave no such Commandment— it seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who will also report the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay on you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these you will do well.”

Acts 15:24 specifically tells them they are NOT under the Law of Moses. Then, when they gave the list of requirements for Gentiles, keeping the Sabbath was not included. In fact, nothing from the Law of Moses was given for the believing Gentiles to keep.

The obvious conclusion the Gentiles would have drawn from this authoritative letter is that they were not expected or required to keep the Law of Moses, including the Sabbath Law. Moreover there is nothing in the apostolic teaching in the Epistles that would contradict this conclusion, and Paul’s writings support it strongly. 

The way Acts 21:20-26 refers to the Council decision of Acts 15, confirms this interpretation. Having described how the believing Jews of Jerusalem were still zealous to keep the Law of Moses in v20-24, by contrast it is then made clear that the believing Gentiles are NOT under the Law: “BUT concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing (in the Law of Moses,v24), except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 21:25-26). 
In Acts 18:18, Paul made a vow according to the Law (Numbers 6:2,5,9,18), showing that although we are free from the Law of Moses, we are also free to keep parts of it if we want. 

Likewise, in Acts 20:16, we see Paul desiring to get to Jerusalem in time for the Feast of Pentecost, which the Law required all Jewish males to attend. However, a study of Paul’s general observance of the Feasts shows that he did not consider himself to be under the Law, for he failed to go to the vast majority of the Feasts that took place during his ministry. The Law required all Jewish males to attend 3 Feasts every year: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles” (Deuteronomy 16:16).

Acts 21:20-24 reveals the practice of Jewish believers in Jerusalem in the early Church, but it does not tell us that it was mandatory for Jews, and certainly not for Gentiles. It does show us that Jewish believers have the freedom to keep the Law, and that voluntary Sabbath-keeping is permitted: “when we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. When he had greeted them, he told in detail those things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What then? The assembly must certainly meet, for they will hear that you have come. Therefore do what we tell you: We have four men who have taken a vow. Take them and be purified with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads, and that all may know that those things of which they were informed concerning you are nothing, but that you yourself also walk orderly and keep the Law.” 

These Jerusalem Jews chose to continue to keep the Law, probably because they had been brought up that way, and to identify with their people and not cause offence. Likewise believers (especially Jews) are free to chose to try and live by the Law as best they can, but they need to know that the Law does not contribute to their justification or sanctification (rather the reverse if he trusts in his law-keeping), or that it is in any way commanded by God. It would also be wrong for him to impose it on others (legalism). If he 
keeps the Law, he must also recognise others’ freedom not to.



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