Episode 20: It is often thought that somewhere in the New Testament the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday. But did the unchangeable God really change the day of rest? In episode twenty viewers will learn that not only has the Sabbath day not changed but Jesus himself was faithful to keep it and taught about it. The Sabbath is an eternal covenantal sign between Israel and God. Thus, while Gentiles are not required to keep it, they are welcomed to do so throughout the Scriptures.
The Lesson: The Mystery of the Sabbath
I thought this episode would just be a “rehash” of material I already knew about the Sabbath. To some degree it was, but First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) teachers Toby Janicki and Aaron Eby managed to flesh out the meaning of the Shabbat for the nation of Israel and to some degree, Christianity as well. Since this show primarily is addressed to traditional Gentile believers, no doubt some of the material came as a bit of a surprise.
Toby starts out relating his Sunday school experience as a child when he was required to memorize the Ten Commandments. This, of course, includes the fourth commandment to observe the Sabbath. Many Christians believe that the Ten Commandments are still in effect for the Church, but either disregard the Sabbath entirely, or believe it was changed from Saturday to Sunday, and that all of the Torah restrictions involving work on the (Sunday) Sabbath were eliminated by Jesus.
Toby asks the questions, “Why don’t Christians keep the Sabbath,” “Was the Sabbath changed from Saturday to Sunday,” and “Is the Sabbath even valid anymore?”
And he said to them, “Shabbat was given for the sake of man, and not man for the sake of the Shabbat. Therefore, the son of man is master even of the Shabbat.”
–Mark 2:27-28 (DHE Gospels)
According to Toby, Christians typically use these verses to support the position that Jesus teaches man no longer has to keep the Sabbath since “Shabbat was given for the sake of man.” But Jesus also said that he didn’t come to abolish the Torah, which by definition, would have to include the Torah commandments related to the Sabbath:
Do not imagine that I have come to violate the Torah or the words of the prophets. I have not come to violate but to fulfill. For, amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one yod or one thorn will pass away from the Torah until all has been established.
–Matthew 5:17-18 (DHE Gospels)
If you haven’t done so already, or you just don’t believe Jesus didn’t cancel the Torah, please view the FFOZ TV episode The Torah is Not Canceled, which I reviewed several weeks ago. It provides necessary background for what Toby and Aaron are teaching in the current episode of this series.
To understand how Jesus approached the Sabbath, we have to understand the larger context of what he means by “the Shabbat being made for man rather than man for the Shabbat.”
And it happened that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?” Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
–Mark 2:23-28 (NASB)
Toby brings up an important point that Jesus is debating with the Pharisees about what is and is not permitted to do on the Sabbath, not whether or not the Sabbath remains valid. Neither side in this argument is invalidating the Sabbath, merely dialoguing about what constitutes “work” on this holy day. Rabbis have been having similar debates for hundreds and even thousands of years. The Talmud is replete with Rabbinic discussions and disagreements over what is permitted to do on Shabbat and a wide variety of other matters related to the Torah mitzvot. The discussion recorded in Mark 2:23-28 is no different, and yet Christianity, not seeing this transaction from a Jewish perspective, universally fails to comprehend its meaning.
In the specific example above, Jesus is citing a portion of the Bible when David and his men ate bread permitted only to the Levitical priests. They did so because they were starving and had no where else to turn for food. Jesus is saying that the Shabbat is a gift, not a straitjacket, and the specifics of performing a type of work that is normally forbidden on Shabbat must not overrule the higher principle of preserving human life, well-being, and dignity.
Jesus had a number of similar debates with the Pharisees on this topic, including whether it was permitted to heal a non-life threatening disability on Shabbat (Matthew 12:9-14).
For more context on the debates Jesus had with the Pharisees on the Shabbat, see my review of D. Thomas Lancaster’s book The Sabbath Breaker: Jesus of Nazareth and The Gospels’ Sabbath Conflicts, also published by First Fruits of Zion.
At this point in his presentation, Toby said something I didn’t expect. We generally consider the phrase “Son of Man” as Jesus used it, to refer to himself, the Messiah, however, Toby applied it differently in the context of Mark 2:23-28. He suggested that “Son of Man” is an equivalent term for all humankind. Thus, he presents the words of Jesus as saying that the Sabbath was created as a gift for all people and that all people everywhere are “Lord of the Sabbath.”
For me, this creates certain problems, since, as I said before, the “Son of Man” is generally considered as a title for Messiah, and Toby’s interpretation seems to create a separate meaning for only this situation. It also may contradict what he establishes later in this episode, since if the Sabbath is created for everyone, Jew and non-Jew, and we are all “lords” of the Sabbath, what does that mean for Gentile Shabbat observance today?
More on that in a bit.
Toby drew a parallel between the Master’s words above and an ancient Jewish commentary on the book of Exodus called Mechilta, and quotes part of it which states:
Shabbat is delivered to you, not you to the Shabbat.
This echos the meaning of the Master that man is not to surrender himself to the Shabbat but quite the opposite. If the laws of the Sabbath were entirely rigid and immutable, they might require that observant people be subject to hardship and even death in obedience of such laws. Even the most stringent Jewish interpretation of the laws of Shabbat allow for lifesaving efforts to be expended on Shabbat, but what about people who are suffering but who will live for another day? What if the dilemma isn’t life and death, but life and dignity?
I’ve come the long way around to the first clue in solving our mystery, but it has finally arrived:
Clue 1: Jesus argued about what things were permissible to do on the Sabbath.
And this, as I previously pointed out, is a debate that has been taking place in Judaism for a very long time.
The scene shifts to Aaron Eby in Israel for a word study on the Hebrew word “Shabbat.”
Aaron starts by quoting Exodus 20:8-9, 11 which I render from the Stone Edition of the Tanakh:
Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it. Six days shall you work and accomplish all your work…for in six days Hashem made the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, Hashem blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.
The literal meaning of the word “Shabbat” is “resting” and “stopping” and implies an “active” form of “resting” and “refraining,” not just kicking back and relaxing. To me, this speaks of a specificity of types of activity and inactivity, a mindfulness that Shabbat is not just relaxing in front of the T.V., but directing mind, spirit, and heart away from our immediate human activities and toward God.
Aaron cites something I consider very important in the following:
The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations. Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign forever that in a six-day period Hashem made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed. (emph. mine)
–Exodus 31:16-17 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
There are two exceptionally important points to get from this. When Israel or any individual Jewish person keeps the Shabbat, they:
- Testify to the eternal covenant between God and all Jewish people, the nation of Israel.
- Testify to God’s sovereignty as Creator of the Universe.
In the quote from Exodus 31:16-17, I emphasized words that testify to the eternal nature of the Shabbat as a covenant sign between God and the Jewish people. This also, by implication, testifies to the eternal nature of the Mosaic covenant with the Jewish people, and the Torah as the conditions of that covenant. When Christians say that the Shabbat no longer applies to the Jewish people (or anyone else) and especially that the Torah is now irrelevant to the Jewish people, I want to scream, “What part of eternal don’t you understand?”
But I digress.
Formally, in Judaism, a “day” lasts from sundown to sundown, not from sunrise to sunrise or midnight to midnight. That means that the seventh day Shabbat begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday (in Rabbinic custom, the Shabbat actually begins slightly before sundown on Friday and ends about 45 minutes after sundown on Saturday as a “hedge,” to avoid “cutting it too close,” so to speak, in beginning and ending Shabbat observance).
Aaron also pointed out that generally, Jewish (and Christian) authorities all agree on which day is the “seventh day,” and that Biblically, it can’t be just any day at all.
I wish Aaron or Toby had addressed the following, though:
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord…
–Romans 14:5-6 (NASB)
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.
–Colossians 2:16-19 (NASB)
In Paul’s letter to the Romans addressing “the weak and the strong” (which I’m about to get to in the Mark Nanos book The Mystery of Romans), most people take from these words to mean that one day is as good as another as far as observing a “Sabbath” is concerned, and that believers need not be concerned about strictly observing a Saturday Shabbat. The scripture from Colossians tells a similar tale in the eyes of the Church, and yet both of these interpretations directly contradict earlier scriptures. Since as believers, we cannot understand that the Bible is internally contradictory, we must conclude then that our interpretations are flawed. How can Jewish Shabbat observance be eternal and yet Paul say that it simply doesn’t matter because of Jesus? Jesus himself affirmed the Shabbat, not eliminated it.
Aaron’s segment of this program has him also affirming the current requirement for Israel to observe the Shabbat, but he also asks the question, “What does the Shabbat mean to Gentile believers?”
Back in the studio with Toby, we find our second clue:
Clue 2: Sabbath is from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday.
Two or three clues really don’t do it for the mystery of Shabbat in my opinion. This particular television episode brought up a dense set of meanings for me.
While earlier portions of the episode spoke of the “universality” of the Shabbat as a testimony of all mankind that God is the sovereign Creator, Toby shifts into the specifics of Shabbat and Judaism. While we see the sanctity of the Shabbat being set in place in Genesis 2, Toby points out that the specific commandments of Shabbat observance were not given in any recorded fashion to Adam and his sons or to Noah and his sons. It is only after God redeems the Children of Israel from Egypt and they are standing “as one man” at Sinai before Hashem their God, that Shabbat is formally established and its observance defined in Torah. It is also given as a specific sign of the Mosaic covenant between God and Israel, only Israel, forever. No other people group or nation has ever received this sign obligation to God.
Hashem said to Moses, saying: “Now you speak to the Children of Israel, saying: ‘However, you must observe my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I am Hashem, Who makes you holy.'”
–Exodus 31:12-13 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
Toby doesn’t mention this, but the above verses establish that not only is the Saturday Sabbath considered an eternal sign of the covenant between God and Israel, but so are all of the “Sabbaths,” that is, all of the moadim, God’s appointed times, the festivals identified and defined in Torah, such as Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. Each and every one of these Sabbaths must be observed by all of Israel for all time; for after all, that’s what “eternal” means.
I’ve heard it said in the Church that Jews should observe the moadim as “national holidays” the way Americans “observe” the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. I consider that not only misleading and Biblically inaccurate, but potentially demeaning. It reduces the eternal covenant signs between God and Israel to how Americans “observe” barbecues, fireworks, eating turkey, and watching football. The very best you can say about American national holidays is that they represent who we are and how we relate to our history as Americans, a relationship between citizens and our country. The moadim, the weekly Sabbath, Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and the other special Sabbaths are far, far more than that, and indeed, define the relationship between Israel and her citizens, the Jewish people, and the God of Everything!
That’s somewhat more significant than mere American “national holidays,” wouldn’t you say?
This is another long way around to reaching the third and final clue in solving today’s mystery:
Clue 3: The Bible requires only the Jewish people to keep the Sabbath.
That’s going to make some people I know, non-Jewish people, very unhappy, but hold on there. Toby goes on to say that there’s nothing stopping any non-Jewish believer from also observing the Shabbat in some manner. We may not be commanded to do so, but we might as well “get used to it,” for someday, all of humanity will indeed observe the seventh day Shabbat.
And the foreigners who join themselves to Hashem to serve Him and to love the Name of Hashem to become servants unto Him, all who guard the Sabbath against desecration, and grasp My covenant tightly — I will bring them to My holy mountain, and I will gladden them in My house of prayer; their elevation-offerings and their feast-offerings will find favor on My Altar, for my House will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
–Isaiah 56:6-7 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
It shall be that at every New Moon and on every Sabbath all mankind will come to prostrate themselves before Me, says Hashem.
–Isaiah 66:23 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
If I’m reading this right (and I think I am), then not only will everyone observe a weekly Sabbath, the seventh day Sabbath, in the Messianic Age, but we will observe the New Moons and all of the Sabbaths and Festivals of God, all of the moadim listed in the Torah.
I don’t know how any later or subsequent revelation in the Apostolic scriptures (New Testament) can alter or undo the meaning of this text.
What Did I Learn?
I learned some things about the Sabbath, but I learned more about myself. I learned that I want to scream when I hear good, intelligent, and passionate Christians, men and women who I deeply respect, saying things about the Bible that seem completely contrary to the Bible. To my way of thinking, Toby and Aaron provided their audience with an air-tight case that Sabbath keeping is completely Jewish and remains an obligation for the Jewish people as a response to their covenant obligations to God. To deny this is (forgive me) to deny the evidence of the Bible. Toby and Aaron “quoted chapter and verse,” so to speak, illustrating the path from Genesis, to Sinai, to the present age, and into the Messianic Era, that the seventh day Sabbath is an eternal sign of the (eternal) covenant between God and Israel.
I also learned to “tighten up” the scriptures defining when all of humanity, in addition to Israel, will be obligated to observe the Shabbat, which is in the Messianic Era. There is no current obligation for Christians, or anyone else who isn’t Jewish, to observe Shabbat, but there will be in the future age when Messiah returns and establishes his Kingdom of peace over all the Earth. While Gentiles don’t have to observe Shabbat now, we can choose to, in some fashion, to honor God as Creator and to summon for ourselves a taste of the future Messianic Kingdom.
I found myself thinking of my Jewish wife and children. None of them observe the Shabbat in any real sense. For awhile, when our daughter was in Israel, my wife was lighting the Shabbos candles, but she stopped soon after our daughter returned. It breaks my heart, but I have to remind myself that some traditional Jews believe that in the age right before the coming of Messiah…
There is a tradition that people will begin to despise the values of their religion in the generations preceding the coming of the Messiah. Since in a period of such accelerated change, parents and children will grow up in literally different worlds, and traditions handed down from father to son will be among the major casualties.
Our sages thus teach us that neither parents nor the aged will be respected, the old will have to seek favors from the young, and a man’s household will be become his enemies. Insolence will increase, people will no longer have respect, and none will offer correction. Religious studies will be despised and used by non-believers to strengthen their own claims; the government will become godless, academies places of immorality, and the pious denigrated…
Perhaps it is darkest before the dawn.
At the very end of the episode, as always, FFOZ Founder and President Boaz Michael appeared on camera to summarize this episode and to mention that next week’s show will continue to discuss the Shabbat. He also said, and this is very important to me, that studying the Bible, all of it, from a Jewish cultural, national, historical, ethnic, and traditional perspective “makes our Bibles consistent and upholds the Biblical truth that God doesn’t change.”
At the beginning of some of these shows, Toby refers to himself as “a Gentile who studies Messianic Judaism.” I’m a Gentile Christian who studies Messianic Judaism but who also attends a Christian church and, as part of that experience, studies Christianity from a fundamentalist and Reformed theology perspective.
So far, after a year of being back in church, the Messianic learning framework still makes a great deal more sense to me as a Biblical guide to Biblical truth than the platform used by fundamentalists. And this should be strange, since being a fundamentalist Christian simply means adhering to the core fundamentals of faith in Jesus Christ.
But maybe that’s the problem. Those fundamentals are based on (please pardon me again) a “fundamental” set of assumptions and traditional interpretations of what the Bible is saying. While those fundamentals attempt to take into account, not only the meaning of the Bible in its original languages, but the cultural and historic context of the Biblical authors and their audiences, they just do not escape the filter of two-thousand years of Christian interpretive history as well as Christian/Jewish enmity, all of which, after Christianity broke from its Jewish origins, must by definition, deny the Torah and deny continuing Jewish obligation to the Torah, including the seventh day Sabbath, as an eternal sign of the covenant between Jewish Israel and God.
How long will I be able to straddle the line with each foot planted on opposite sides of the street? You’ll find out in tomorrow’s “morning meditation.”