6. The Sabbath from Sinai to Calvary
ALL theologians agree that during the fifteen centuries between the giving of the law on Mount Sinai and the resurrection of our Lord, the seventh day of the week was observed with more or less strictness by the Jewish people, and was obligatory upon them by divine authority. We shall not, therefore, devote much time to its consideration during this period, but we will notice a few prominent points.
That law of which the Sabbath was a part, spoken by God upon Mount Sinai, was written by his own finger on two tables of stone, thus indicating its enduring character. And being placed within the ark in the most holy place of the sanctuary, beneath the mercy seat, where, between the cherubim, the visible presence of God rested, it was the central object of interest in their system of religion. Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 4:12, 13; 5:22; 10:1-5; Exodus 40:20, 21.
The Sabbath is mentioned in various scriptures during this long period, showing that it was observed by the pious among that people; while there are many reproofs given by the sacred writers for transgressions of the Sabbath law. Nehemiah 10:31, 33; II Kings 4:23; Amos 8:4-6; Isaiah 56:1-8, etc.
One striking fact showing God’s regard for the Sabbath is found in the prophecy of Jeremiah (chap. 17:20-27):
“Hear you the word of the Lord, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, that enter in by these gates. Thus says the Lord, Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day, nor bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. Neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath day; neither do you any work, but hallow you the Sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers. But they obeyed not, neither inclined their car, but made their neck stiff, that they might not hear nor receive instruction. And it shall come to pass, if you diligently hearken unto me, says the Lord, to bring in no burden through the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but hallow the Sabbath day, to do no work therein, then shall there enter into the gates of this city kings and princes sitting upon the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their princes, the men of Judah, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and this city shall REMAIN FOREVER. And they shall come from the cities of Judah, and from the places about Jerusalem, and from the land of Benjamin, and from the plain, and from the mountains, and from the south, bringing burnt offerings, and sacrifices, and meat offerings, and incense, and bringing sacrifices of praise, unto the house of the Lord. But if you will not hearken unto me to hallow the Sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.”
On this text Dr. Adam Clarke comments thus: “From this and the following verses we find the ruin of the Jews attributed to the breach of the Sabbath; as this led to a neglect of sacrifice, the ordinances of religion, and all public worship, so it necessarily brought with it all immorality. This breach of the Sabbath was that which let in upon them all the waters of God’s wrath.”
What could exalt the importance of the Sabbath more than these statements of Holy Writ? Had they kept the Sabbath sacredly, other religious blessings would have followed, and would have preserved their city and nation forever: whereas their neglect of the Sabbath ultimately caused their ruin as a nation. They were very lax in its observance previous to their captivity in Babylon, and were often reproved for this. But after their return, they were much more strict. Indeed, they were so particular in regard to its observance that they would sometimes suffer themselves to be overcome rather than fight on the Sabbath. They would not attack their enemies on that day, even when their neglect to do so endangered their safety. Josephus gives many instances of this kind. (Antiquities, b. 12, chap. 6; and b. 13, chap. i; also the books of the Maccabees.)
Tradition Exalted by the Jews
Previous to the time of Christ, and after the Lord’s prophets ceased to appear, the Jews became very fond of tradition, exalting it even above the authority of the Scriptures. Many instances of this kind are given in the Gospels. Christ sharply reproved the Jews on this point. There was no requirement of God more abused by tradition than the Sabbath; indeed, it was greatly perverted from its original design by this means.
Dr. Justin Edwards, in his Sabbath Manual, pages 214, 215, gives the following list: “They enumerated about forty primary works, which they said were forbidden to be done on the Sabbath. Under each of these were numerous secondary works, which they said were also forbidden. . . . Among the primary works which were forbidden, were plowing, sowing, reaping, winnowing, cleaning, grinding, etc. Under the head of grinding was included the breaking or dividing of things which were before united.
“Another of their traditions was, that, as threshing on the Sabbath was forbidden, the bruising of things, which was a species of threshing, was also forbidden. Of course, it was a violation of the Sabbath to walk on green grass; for that would bruise or thresh it. So, as a man might not hunt on the Sabbath, he might not catch a flea; for that was a species of hunting.
“As a man might not carry a burden on the Sabbath, he might not carry water to a thirsty animal; for that was a species of burden; but he might pour water into a trough, and lead the animal to it . . . Yet, should a sheep fall into a pit, they would readily lift him out, and bear him to a place of safety . . .
“They said a man might minister to the sick for the purpose of relieving their distress, but not for the purpose of healing their diseases. He might put a covering on a diseased eye, or anoint it with eye-salve for the purpose of easing the pain, but not to cure the eye.”
These foolish traditions, when carried out made the Sabbath a burdensome yoke instead of the merciful institution which God designed it should be, a delight and blessing to his creatures. How wonderfully this explains many of the references to the Sabbath in the Gospels!
The Jews found fault with Christ because he paid no respect to these traditions. But he found fault with them for making the commandments of God of none effect by their tradition. Matthew 15:4-9. The Pharisees accused him of breaking the Sabbath, because he healed the sick (Matthew 12:9-14), cast out devils (Luke 4:33-36), gave sight to the blind (John 9:1-16), permitted his disciples to pluck and rub out the wheat heads and eat (Matthew 12:1-8), and directed a man to carry his bed—a burden like a cloak or mat (Matthew 9:1-6), on the Sabbath day.
Christ Kept the Seventh Day
Modern enemies to the seventh-day Sabbath have sometimes united with the ancient haters of Christ in accusing our Lord of being a transgressor of the law, i.e., a sinner. But it is impossible to show a single instance where he violated the Sabbath commandment. Had he done so, he would not have been sinless; he could not have been our Savior. The law would have condemned him; for all admit that it was obligatory all through Christ’s ministry till his crucifixion. We utter an emphatic protest against thus attributing disobedience to God, our only perfect example, just as he was about to be offered for the sins of others, he declared, “I have kept my Father’s commandments.” John 15:10. He certainly had not broken them if he had kept them, and the Sabbath command was one of those which he had kept.
Our Saviour constantly justified his course against the accusers, who claimed that he or his disciples had broken the Sabbath. When they complained because his disciples had plucked and eaten the wheat, lie declared they were “guiltless.” Matthew 12:7. They had not broken the law. They had only violated one of those human traditions. When he healed the man whose hand was withered (Matthew 12:9-14), they sought to destroy him for it; but he declared his course in thus doing well was “lawful,” i.e., according to law. He had done no wrong. But they had erected their traditions, as we have seen, and they were angry because he would not regard them.
The time had come for Christ to strip off these wretched perversions of God’s truth, and restore the law to its own naked purity. He says, “In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” Matthew 15:9. Our Savior ever exalted the law of his Father, and taught its eternal perpetuity. Matthew 5:17-20; 15:1-20; 19:16-22; 22:34-40; etc., etc. The Sabbath is an important part of this law.
It was our Savior’s “custom” to attend divine service on the seventh-day Sabbath, and to instruct the people. Luke 4:16. “Custom” implies a constant practice. He placed the most distinguished honor upon it, by teaching that the Sabbath was made for the race of man, and that lie was its Lord. Mark 2:27, 28. It was not made merely for the Jews, but for all men. This statement recognizes its existence when man was first created. This was some twenty-three centuries before Judah, the father of the Jewish people, was born. Hence our Savior teaches that it was in no sense a Jewish institution.
Christ the Lord of the Sabbath
The fact that God’s only begotten Son claims to be the “Lord of the Sabbath,” is the highest honor which could be conferred upon it. Some in these days greatly misunderstand and pervert this important fact. They would have us believe that because he is its Lord, therefore he might conclude to set it aside, change it, or abolish it altogether. A strange conclusion! Christ is Lord of his people. “You call me Master and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.” But we do not conclude, therefore, that he will destroy or abolish his people because he is their Lord. Sarah called Abraham “lord.” I Peter 3:6. She certainly did not have the remotest idea he would destroy her. We read of the House of Lords of England. This title of high honor does not signify that they are the destroyers of the people. The word rather implies a protector, a guardian, one who will defend the rights of those over whom he is lord.
The fact that the Son of God is Lord of the Sabbath implies that he understands its nature, origin, and rights better than any one else, and will guard them sacredly. And why should he not? Christ himself made the world. John 1:3; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2. He was present, and performed the very acts which laid the foundation of the Sabbath. He rested, therefore, himself from his acts of creation. He was also with the church in the wilderness when the commandments were spoken. Exodus 23:20, 21; Acts 7:37, 38; I Corinthians 10:4. The Sabbath is, then, the Lord’s Day in a special sense. Thus we have traced the seventh day with an unvarying sanctity from creation to the crucifixion of Christ.