THE SABBATH IN GENTILE TIMES
The Sabbath to this day distinguishes Israel from the other nations, and separates them from the communities among whom they live. The fact is forced on attention in passing through any great European city on a Saturday. The closed shutters of many a shop tell of the Sabbath and the synagogue, and therefore of God having brought Israel from Egypt. It is one of the many Mosaic institutions which have survived in their dispersion. They offer no sacrifices; they have no high priest or temple; but next to the practice of circumcision they are to be known in all countries by their suspension of secular employment on the seventh day.
It is singular fact that in a certain form, the Sabbath law has become incorporate with the religious systems of Gentile Europe and its offshoots. It is a fact suggestive of many more thoughts that can appropriately be followed out in the present connection. For one thing, it is an operation of Providence that has conferred some blessedness in advance upon the Japhetic people. It is impossible that public or private life can come to a truly good development without a periodic cessation of secular work. It was not in Gentile sagacity to see this for themselves. The institution has been established among them without their sagacity. It has been established among them as the result of the establishment of “Christianity”, though it is no part of “Christianity”. In this respect it is a “sign” among them that God raised Christ from the dead, just as the Mosaic Sabbath was a sign that God brought Israel out of Egypt. It is a curious situation that without the law of Moses, with which the Gentiles have nothing to do, the Gentiles, by a mistaken appropriation of the law of Moses, have come to an observance of the law of Moses through Christ, who was the end of the law of Moses for everyone believing in him. It is not difficult to see how this intricate evolution has come about, and how, out of evil, God permitted an amount of good to come that could not have been humanly foreseen.
From the day of Pentecost, about A.D. 30, to the accession of Constantine as emperor of the Romans, A.D. 312, was a period during which the apostolic testimony for the resurrection of Christ had so leavened the Roman empire with conviction, that a Roman emperor sympathizing with the Christian belief was able, at the head of a Roman army pervaded with a similar sympathy, to overthrow the Pagan government at Rome that had for nearly three centuries made war against the inextinguishable Christian faith. The overthrow of Paganism was so complete for the time that there arose the necessity for a new system of jurisprudence, civil and ecclesiastical. In constructing this new system, Constantine naturally sought the assistance of the heads of the new faith, which by his hand had overthrown the old. In this way the moulding of the new system, in its ecclesiastical elements, inevitably came into the hands of the bishops; and from them Constantine received with approbation the institution of the weekly Sabbath, which he promulgated as the law of the empire.
The Mosaic law enjoined the observance of the seventh day: Constantine appointed the day after, or the first day of the week, as the Sabbath. There are some in our day who make this a reason for contending for the observance of the seventh, and not the first day of the week. If it were a question of Moses versus Constantine, this contention would be unanswerable. But in truth it is not a question of one or the other for the brethren of the Lord. Constantine is not their lawgiver; and they are certainly “not under the law” (Rom. 6:14–15), but under Christ, who is “the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4), and who never enjoined the observance of the Sabbath.
How, then, came the bishops to recommend to Constantine the observance of the Mosaic Sabbath on the first day of the week ? There are two well-authenticated facts in the case that supply the answer. The first is that the disciples in the apostolic age, by apostolic precept and example, established the practice of “assembling themselves together” on “the first day of the week” for “the breaking of bread in remembrance of the Lord” (Luke 22:19–20; Acts 20:7; 1Cor. 11:17, 23–28; 16:2; Heb. 10:25), probably out of historic harmony with the fact that on that day the Lord first showed himself alive to the disciples after his resurrection, and ate and drank with them (Luke 24). This practice being established during the life-time of the apostles would naturally become the practice of believers in whatever part of the world ecclesias were formed. As a matter of fact, it is testified by several of the ecclesiastical writers of the second and third centuries that such was the practice everywhere. This accounts for the transmission of the first day of the week to Constantine’s time as the day of Christian assembly.
But how came it to be invested with a Mosaic character ? Here the second fact comes to our aid: during the lifetime of the apostles there was a large party among believers (who were mostly Jewish at first)who contended strenuously for the observance of the law of Moses, concurrently with submission to the gospel, as a condition of acceptability with God. No one can be an attentive and habitual reader of the New Testament without knowing this. On the very threshold of the apostolic enterprise we read, in Acts 15:5, 24, of “certain of the sect of the Pharisees, which believed”, who contended” that it was needful to circumcise the Gentile believers, and to command them to keep the law of Moses”. Paul’s epistle bears evidence of the contentious activity of this class years afterwards in parts widely distant from Judea. “Tell me”, he exclaims, in writing to the Galatians, “ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law ?” and he proceeds to unfold an argument intended to prove that Christ is of no use to those who put themselves under the law (Gal. 5:4), and that it is the duty of his brethren “to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made them free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (verse 1). That his argument would be effectual with some, there cannot be a doubt; but that it failed to silence and convince the agitators, we have positive evidence in the letters written afterwards, in which he recurs to the subject itself, and renews his warnings against the Judaizers (Phil. 3:2, 3, 6–9; Col. 2:13–17; 1 Tim. 1:6–7, 2 Tim. 2:14, 18; Titus 1:10–14). Not only so, but he foretold their triumph in the community that had been developed by the labours of the apostles (Acts 20:29; 2 Tim. 2:17; 3:13; 4:3, 4). The epistles of John, written forty years later, show us the great strides that had been made within that time in the fulfilment of the prophecy. The thing had really begun in Paul’s day, for he had to say, “All they that be of Asia (the Lesser) are turned away from me” (2 Tim. 1:15). But in John’s day John had to say “Many false prophets (teachers) are gone out into the world… the world heareth them” (1 John 4:1, 5).
Consequently, we should make a great mistake if we looked upon the community headed up by the bishops under Constantine as a community founded upon apostolic principles in their purity and truth. It was a community that had been widely leavened with Judaism, as illustrated in their observance of “Easter” and other feasts of a Jewish origin, the substitution of “baptism” on the eighth day in the room of circumcision, the exaltation of the original simple “pastors and teachers” into the position of priests and Levites, the exaction of tithes for their maintenance, and the transmutation of the first day assembly for the breaking of bread, into the place of the Mosaic Sabbath. Nevertheless, out of the corruption came this good result. A Sabbath rest once in seven days became a law of Europe—a result which ameliorated the barbarism of the nations, and at the same time secured legal liberty, as at this day, for the true friends of Christ everywhere to hold that memorial assembly which is so necessary to their spiritual well-being.
The attempt to enforce the Mosaic Sabbath as a rule of individual duty for the friends of Christ in this age is in direct violation of Christ’s teaching as to their relation to the Mosaic law, and the law of the Sabbath in particular, whether by himself or his apostles. He is never found by his own mouth enjoining the law of Moses on believers. He rather seeks to fasten attention on himself. Though he was born under the law (Gal. 4:4) and obedient in all things (Heb. 5:8–9), he places himself above the law in the precepts he enjoins, as manifest from the recurring phrase in” the sermon on the mount”: “Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time”, thus and so (“hate thine enemy”). “But I say unto you, Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:43–44; also 21, 27, 31, 33 and 38). This over-vaulting authority is also asserted in those remarkable expressions: “A greater than Solomon is here… a greater than Jonas is here… in this place is one greater than the temple” (Luke 11:31–32; Matt. 12:6). Jesus truly came to fulfil the law, but he came to “fulfil” in much higher sense than merely conforming to the letter of its enactment. He came to end it by accomplishing in himself all that it foreshadowed, plucking the sting out of it by giving himself up to its curse in suffering himself to be crucified.
These things are testified, and will not be ignored by minds in earnest about truth. The testimony is explicit. “Christ is the end of the law” (Rom. 10:4). “The law is a shadow of good things to come… the body is of Christ” (Heb. 10:1; Col. 2:17). He “blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Col. 2:14). “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree … . The law was our schoolmaster. We are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:13, 24, 25).
It follows that the statement of Heb. 7:18 (R.V.) is a simple assertion of fact that “there is a disannulling of a foregoing commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness (for the law made nothing perfect) and the bringing in thereupon of a better hope”. If the law is “disannulled”, the Sabbath as a part of it is displaced from the position it occupied under Moses. Its observance is no longer essential to the righteousness that is acceptable to God. Its neglect no longer exposes the offender to death as it once did (Exod. 31:15). The Israelites were not allowed to kindle a fire or leave their dwellings on the Sabbath day (Exod. 35:3). A man was stoned to death for gathering sticks on that day (Num. 15:33). But this severity, which was necessary for the protection of the institution, has been relaxed. The day itself is obsolete as a religious exercise, that is to say, obsolete by Divine appointment. The change dates from the first appearing of Christ. He proclaimed himself “Lord also of the sabbath”, in the sense of having authority to do work on that day if he saw fit in the execution of his mission (Mark 2:28). The Sabbath, intended as a blessing, had in Christ’s day degenerated into a day of oppressive restraint and formalism; and Christ had to remind his generation that” the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In all cases in which he appears in connection with the Sabbath, it is in opposition to those who stickled for what might be called a sabbatarian treatment of the day. Let the following illustrate:
- A synagogue ruler had testily said to the people who were so attentive to Jesus: “There are six days in which men ought to work: in them, therefore, come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day”. Jesus said: “Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath day loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering, and ought not this woman . . to be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day ?” (Luke 13:14).
- On another occasion the Pharisees having found fault with the disciples for plucking the ears of corn as they passed through a field on a Sabbath day, Jesus said: “Have ye not read in the law how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless ? But I say unto you that in this place is one greater than the temple. If ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath day” (Matt. 12:5–8).
- “And it came to pass on another sabbath that he entered into the synagogue and taught… and the scribes and Pharisees watched him whether he would heal on the sabbath day … . And Jesus said unto them, I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the sabbath day, to do good, or to do evil, to save life, or to destroy it ? And looking round about upon them, he said unto the man (with the withered hand), Stretch forth thy hand. And he did so: and his hand was restored whole as the other” (Luke 6:6).
- “And it came to pass, as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the sabbath day, that they watched him. And, behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy. And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day ? And they held their peace… And they could not answer him again to these things” (Luke 14:1, 6).
- “After this, there was a feast of the Jews … . And Jesus saith unto him (an impotent man), Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed. He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk … . Therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:1, 8–11, 16–18).
- “If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath ?” (John 7:23).
- “And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man that was blind from his birth. And… he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay, and said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam (which is by interpretation, Sent). He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing… And it was the sabbath day when Jesus made the clay, and opened his eyes … . Therefore said some of the Pharisees, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the sabbath day” (John 9:1, 6, 14, 16).
There can be no mistaking the attitude on the Sabbath question illustrated by these passages from the life of Christ. There are no others of a contrary tenour. As for the apostles, they not only teach, as we have seen, that the law of Moses is “done away in Christ” (2 Cor. 3:11–14), but they single out the Sabbath for special indication. Paul says to the Colossians, Christ having blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath: which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (Col. 2:16, 17). Paul’s fear of the Galatians was founded on the fact that they “observed days, and months, and times, and years” (Gal. 4:10). He reminded them that Christ was “made under the law that he might redeem them that were under the law” (verses 4, 5), who before time were “under the elements”of that system (verse 3), but had now “received the adoption of sons”, which made it an utterly incongruous thing in the eyes of Paul that they should “turn again to the weak and beggarly elements” of the law. “Tell me”, says he, “ye that desire to be under the law”, and proceeded with the allegory of Sarah and Hagar (verse 9, 21). To the Romans he plainly says that the observance of days which was imperative under Moses is a matter of indifference to those who stand in Christ. “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord. He that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it” (Rom. 14:5, 6).
It is evident, therefore, that those make a great mistake who speak of “the Christian Sabbath” in the sense of its being a day to be observed by believers in Christ as the seventh day was observed under Moses. In fact, there is no such thing in scriptural truth as “the Christian Sabbath”. Christ appointed no Sabbath, and the Sabbath of Moses was the seventh and not the first day of the week. Christ appointed the assembly of his brethren to break bread in remembrance of him, and by apostolic usage, this assembly was held on the first day of the week, but this is a different thing from keeping the day holy as a day. On this we have no command, and “where there is no law, there is no transgression” The Sabbatarians, whether of the first or seventh day type, are seeking to impose a yoke where God has imposed none. True it is that “the law is good if man use it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8), and that the cessation from secular work once in seven days is a good thing. A man is at liberty to do this if he choose, and to set the day apart for special exercises in a religious direction if he choose; but he has no authority to lay down an imperative law for himself or others where God has imposed none. The only law laid upon believers in such a manner is to “forsake not the assembling of themselves together”; and apostolic example leads them to obey this law on the first day of the week, and to make the breaking of bread “in remembrance” of Christ the chief feature of it. The command to keep any particular day “holy” belongs to the law of Moses, which has been corruptly copied by State Christianity and a false church. The abuse has been carried to such absurd lengths in the Greek and Latin communions that there is no part of the year’s calendar that is not dotted over with so-called “holy” days. The Sabbath will be reinstituted in the “kingdom restored to Israel” along with the passover and other feasts (Ezek. 45:17–21); but that will concern the mortal populations who have the privilege to be ruled by the saints. It does not concern either the one or the other now in this era of downtreading of all things divine. The only divine work that is going on now is the preparation of a people for the Lord’s own use as fellow-rulers with him in the glory to be revealed; and their preparation is by the belief and obedience of the gospel and not by any of the institutions of Moses, which for the time being have all been taken out of the way.
The argument that finds warrant in Eden for an obligatory Sabbath (seventh day or first) has its full answer in the fact that the practice of Eden before sin had entered is no guide for these expatriated times. Any contention based on pre-Mosaic practice must apply also to the sacrifice of animals, for that is also an element in the antediluvian service. If the answer be made that sacrifice was superseded by the death of Christ, it has to be rejoined that the same is also true of the Sabbath’ “the body (or substance) of which is of Christ”, as Paul says in the words already quoted. We have the true Sabbath in Christ, who said “I will give you rest”, or Sabbath. Under the law, a man laboured in his own works to establish his own righteousness with a sense of burden that was grevious to be borne, feeling it a yoke, as Peter says, which they were not able to bear (Acts 15:10). The “strength of sin”, as a destroyer, lay “in the law”, as Paul testifies (1 Cor. 15:56). It condemned sinners to death, and all were sinners, who” through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14). But in Christ, their righteousness was by faith of him (Rom. 3:21–22), not their own righteousness, which was by the law, but the righteousness which was of God by faith (Phil. 3:9). Therefore all who entered Christ entered the true Sabbath keeping, in ceasing from their own works, as the ground of their hope towards God. The offered favour of God with forgiveness became the ground of their hope, and imparted peace and joy. This was the “rest” into which, in a preliminary form, Paul taught that believers entered. “He that is entered into his rest hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his” (on the seventh day) (Heb. 4:10). It all has reference to the final Sabbath of the kingdom, the rest that remaineth for the people of God in the seventh period of a thousand years, when all the toil-worn human race will cease from their vain efforts to work out their own blessedness, and accept in grateful humility the long-covenanted blessedness of Abraham and his seed which will come on all who yield the needful faith and submission.