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How Shall We Keep the Sabbath?

Jesus at the center will do more to preserve the sanctity of the Sabbath
than any number of rules ever could.

John Brunt, Ph.D.

John Brunt, Ph.D., is vice president for academic administration at Walla Walla College, Walla Walla, Washington.

"For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise."

"The art of keeping the seventh day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation: as He sanctified the seventh day, so shall we."(19)

With these magnificent words the late Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the beauty of holy time, time sanctified by God and celebrated with Him.

Most of the Christian world today has lost all sense of holy time. The whole idea of keeping a period of time for special relationship with God apart from the usual activities of the week has all but disappeared. This was hardly true in an earlier day. In the United States, many Christian churches observed Sunday with strict rules. Most Christians today, however, would look at Puritan rules as hopelessly obsolete, if not simply humorous.

Even in Sabbatarian Christian communities, such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, there is a developing pluralism with regard to how the Sabbath is kept. When I was a child in the 1940s, rules for Sabbath keeping were clear. Running and playing were all right, but no balls of any kind were to be used in our play, and all playground equipment was out. Hikes were all right, but swimming was wrong, although wading up to the knees was generally acceptable. It was amazing how common these rules were, even though they were never written down.

Today, however, there is much less agreement on a generally accepted body of rules. Even in Sabbatarian Christian communities, the idea of sacred time may be having a hard time. Pluralism and diversity in keeping the Sabbath warn of the danger of losing the sanctity of Sabbath, unique time spent with God all together.

If Heschel is right and God did sanctify time as a memorial of Creation, what are we to do? How do we preserve the sanctity of Sabbath in a secular world?

Rules are not enough

It would be tempting to argue for a new emphasis on rules for governing Sabbath observance. As tempting as it might be, however, our argument here is that we cannot accomplish the task of preserving the sanctity of Sabbath by simply getting out the old rulebook and reestablishing these rules. Before we see why this is not the answer, however, let's first of all admit that it would be a tempting option, for there are advantages to rules. First, rules provide security. In a complex world, it is often confusing to know how best to keep the Sabbath. Rules give us a benchmark to let us know how we're doing. They ease the confusion and make us more comfortable.

Second, rules help us preserve institutions and activities such as Sabbath. There can be no sense of holy time if there is no difference between Sabbath and the other days of the week. Rules help define that difference so that we can take care to preserve the Sabbath's unique character.

Finally, rules help keep us together in unity. When there are no rules and everyone simply does what is right in their own eyes, it is difficult for a community to keep Sabbath together. And yet at the heart of the Sabbath is the idea of community, people of God joining together in worship and fellowship. Can two walk together if they don't agree? How can you have community observance of Sabbath unless there are generally accepted rules to preserve the community?

With all of these advantages, the old rulebook looks pretty good. But there is one reason we must reject this approach as our basic methodology for preserving the sanctity of Sabbath in a secular world. That one reason is Jesus. You see, when Jesus was on earth, He took on the way of rules with regard to the Sabbath. Let's look at what He did.

Jesus' encounter with Pharisees

Notice, first, Jesus' encounter with the Pharisees, a party of Jewish leaders, concerning His disciples' activity on Sabbath.

"One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, 'Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?' He answered, 'Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.' Then he said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath'" (Mark 2:23-28, NIV).

The story is a marvel in its simplicity. First, there is the plain statement of Jesus and the disciples' activity. As they walked through the grain fields, the disciples plucked heads of grain and presumably ate. But the Pharisees objected: "Why are the disciples doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" Notice that the basic issue about Sabbath here involves the rules. Jesus responds with a story from their own tradition. Hadn't they heard that when David was hungry he and those with him ate the shewbread from the sanctuary, food that was lawful only for priests? Then Jesus concludes with a saying about the Sabbath. "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."

Gospel scholars call this kind of story that ends with a saying of Jesus a pronouncement story. The main feature of such stories is a saying of Jesus that serves as a punch line at the end of a controversy. In a sense, the whole story leads up to the punch line.

It is generally believed that the church was interested in pronouncement stories and preserved them during the time Jesus' sayings and stories about Him were passed on orally because these pronouncements were especially helpful for the church in its conflicts. These sayings of Jesus helped the church resolve difficult problems and gave it ammunition as it sought to defend its actions against its accusers.

There can be little doubt that this story fits this general situation. Undoubtedly the church saw itself in the situation of the disciples, accused by opponents and vindicated by what Jesus said. The church, in essence, became the disciples who were with Jesus.

Understood this way, we find nothing in the story that would hint at either a change in the day for keeping Sabbath or an end to Sabbath keeping in the early church. The dispute between the disciples and the Pharisees had to do with how the Sabbath was to be kept. The issue was not which day to keep or whether Sabbath should be kept; rather, it was a question of Sabbath observance. The very fact that it was Jesus' disciples who were accused probably made this story especially useful for the church. History repeated itself. The disciples, those who followed Him, were again being accused of improper Sabbath observance and found their vindication in this story.

Mishnah and Sabbath observance

Jesus' saying seems to reject a whole way of approaching Sabbath observance, the way of rule-making. It is impossible for us to know exactly what the Pharisees taught about the Sabbath, since the oral traditions that they passed along were not written down until about the year A.D. 200, in a work called the Mishnah. There is no doubt that the Mishnah records oral traditions that date back much further.

We know that the first-century Pharisaic rabbis accepted a whole body of oral traditions that built a fence around the law by making additional rules to avoid even coming close to breaking the law. But we can never be sure which of the specific rules recorded in the Mishnah actually dated from the first century. We can, however, get a general idea of the shape of the oral tradition that they would have held, and that Jesus seems to reject.

For the Pharisees, proper Sabbath observance was spelled out via a system of detailed prohibitions. This does not mean that there was any lack of sincere appreciation for the Sabbath. The prohibitions were to preserve its sanctity. The Mishnah, for instance, classifies 39 classes of unlawful work on Sabbath.(20) In our incident Jesus would have broken at least two of these by threshing and winnowing.

The degree to which rules were created for almost every conceivable situation can be seen when the Mishnah spells out rules for how to observe Sabbath, even in the specific situation in which one's home is burning down.(21) Such a case presented at least a couple problems for those who adopted the rabbinic rules. Putting out a fire was illegal on Sabbath, as was carrying things from one's home. However, certain exceptions were made if one's house was burning down. One could carry food out of the house, but only enough to get each member of the family through the rest of the Sabbath. One could not carry clothes out of the house, but one could wear as many clothes as one could get on.

The rabbis differed as to whether or not one could go back into the burning building and put on a second array of clothes. Putting the fire out was not allowed, but if a Gentile volunteered, a good Jew could allow the Gentile to put it out. One could not, however, ask a Gentile for such a favor.

All this may sound humorous, but we must understand the positive appreciation of the Sabbath that motivated these rules. By observing the rules, the pious follower of God would be sure that he or she did not even come close to breaking the Sabbath.

The problem in rule-making

It would be a mistake to think that the rabbis were unreasonable with their rules. They frequently put human need above the letter of the law. Healing, for instance, was permitted on Sabbath if life was actually in danger. If this approach to rules was motivated by a positive regard for the Sabbath and its sanctity and made reasonable exceptions, what was so wrong with it?

One problem was the continual need for increasing rules. Every rule has an exception, and if you really want to spell things out, then you need to have rules to cover the exceptions, and rules to cover the exceptions to the exceptions, and finally, the exceptions to the exceptions to the exceptions. This methodology leads to a continually increasing need for more and more rules.

Second, this method led to an inevitable spirit of criticism. Once the rules are established, it is very difficult not to be judgmental toward those who break them. Here in our story, it seems that the religious leaders of the day were actually watching to see if Jesus and His disciples would break the rules.

Although this incident would be sufficient to see that Jesus rejected the whole system of rule making, the next incident, which follows in the first part of Mark 3, makes this even more clear. "Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.

Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, 'Stand up in front of everyone.' Then Jesus asked them, 'Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?' But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus" (Mark 3:1-6, NIV).

The Jesus alternative

Notice that Jesus takes the initiative to heal this man. He does it in a very open way. He brings him to the center of the synagogue. Nothing secret here. And yet Jesus picks a case that is as far from the rules for Sabbath healing as possible. The rules permitted healing if life was in danger, but this man's life was hardly in danger from his withered hand. He had the withered hand for years, probably. In this healing story, as well as the incident in the  grain field, Jesus seems purposefully to take on the rules and offer an alternative. What, then, is the alternative that Jesus offers?

Jesus takes rules away from the center of the Sabbath, and instead places Himself and human beings in that center. Jesus' way gives priority to the value of people. Human needs take priority over literalistic observance of rules. According to Jesus' way, the whole purpose of the law is to meet human needs and to enhance human life. For Him the whole law exists for human beings, and this is seen particularly in the Sabbath. The Sabbath is made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.

This is related to Jesus' lordship of the Sabbath. For many years, scholars have debated whether the last part of Jesus' saying, "The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." means that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath, or should be taken in a more general sense.

In Aramaic "son of man" simply means human being. Is Jesus saying that humans are Lord of the Sabbath? This would seem to fit with the first part of the saying recorded in Mark, and yet it seems clear from the Gospel that "Son of Man" carries more weight than that.

It is Jesus who is Lord of the Sabbath, but it is also clear that as Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus offers the Sabbath to humans for their benefit, and offers them freedom in Sabbath observance. At the heart of the Sabbath is Jesus in relationship with human beings. What does this mean for our Sabbath observance? Three clear implications come to mind.

1. There must be commitment to Jesus. Sabbath keeping cannot merely be a matter of rules, because such an approach would detract from the real center of the Sabbath, Jesus Christ. How we observe the Sabbath must flow from our relationship with Jesus. Sabbath is an invitation to spend special time with Him and receive the healing that He took the initiative to offer on Sabbath. In this sense it is like a special occasion, those special occasions we celebrate in life such as birthdays and wedding anniversaries.

When a husband and wife want to be together on their wedding anniversary, it is because there is a unique relationship they share. The day of their marriage has meaning because of that relationship. We would wonder about a husband who had a list of rules in hand, saying, "Next week is my anniversary, and I've got to keep all these rules. I've got to buy my wife a card, I've got to buy my wife flowers, I've got to make reservations at a restaurant, I've got to take her out to eat." On the other hand, these kinds of activities are what make anniversaries special. They come, however, not from a rule-book, but from the heart. They grow out of a relationship. Sabbath-keeping, too, grows out of a relationship with God, who sanctified the Sabbath.

2. Proper Sabbath observance involves the mind. We must use our reason and think. God has not provided us with a detailed list of rules. The Sabbath commandment, in Exodus 20:8-11, does provide some basic guidelines, such as not working on Sabbath, for example. But God calls on us to reflect on our relationship with Him and think about what Sabbath means. This is part of what it means to love God with our whole heart and soul and mind. Although it is easier to follow rules than to have to reason on the basis of a relationship, God knew that the latter would lead to spiritual growth.

3. Jesus' way means freedom. If we must each reason from our relationship with God, we will not all come to the same conclusions. There must be a tolerance for diversity in Sabbath observance. This hardly means that anything goes. A community must have certain boundaries. But these boundaries should be based on the explicit statements of the commandment. Within that general guideline there is room for a good bit of diversity. Living with diversity will help us grow in grace and learn to love each other.

All of this does point out a certain irony. On the one hand, we are always tempted to think that without rules we will forget the Sabbath, but on the other hand, the Sabbath itself reminds us that the way of rules will not do, for Jesus uses the Sabbath to attack the whole system of rules that existed in His day.

This does not mean that laxity and a lack of concern for Sabbath observance should prevail. It does mean that the community that follows Jesus's way will be a certain kind of community. It will be a community that thinks about the meaning of the Sabbath. It will be a community that reflects together on how the Sabbath can best be kept in a way that both contributes to its meaning and benefits the people to whom God has given it as a gift. Thus, people in the community will plan together to find positive ways of actualizing the meaning of Sabbath in their lives.

It is this thinking, reflection, and planning on the part of the members of the community, always with a focus on the scriptural materials on the Sabbath, that will keep the community serious about the sanctity of the Sabbath. And if we truly keep Jesus at the center, this will do more to preserve the true sanctity of the Sabbath than any number of rules ever could.

Portions of this article are adapted from John Brunt's "Jesus Way With the Sabbath in Festival of the Sabbath, edited by Roy Branson, copyright 1985, Takoma Park, Maryland, Association of Adventist Forums. Ministry Magazine, May 1997.
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