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Did Christ Observe The Sabbath?
ST. PAUL TELLS US that God "sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law" (Gal. 4:4). This means that Jesus was made or rather chose to make Himself subject to the law of Moses, although He was and remains forever superior to all law. Yet, because He chose to be born a Jew, He freely chose to submit to Jewish law. For this reason He was circumcised the eighth day, presented in the temple and "redeemed" the fortieth day after birth, made the regular pilgrimages to the Temple, attended the Sabbath exercises in the synagogue, and so forth. He even paid the temple tax although, as He clearly stated, He had no obligation to do so. He paid it to avoid offending the Jews (Matt. 17:24-27).
Christ, further, expressly declared His attitude toward the law of Moses in the following words: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished" (Matt. 5:17-18).
This passage requires explanation. Christ had in mind the entire Old Testament, designated here by its principal Jewish divisions as "the law and the prophets." The Old Testament contained prophecy; it contained a moral and a ceremonial or ritual code. Christ realized the prophetic part of the Old Testament, a point which St. Matthew constantly stresses. The moral code was imperfect; Christ brought it to perfection. The ceremonial part of the law, which prescribed circumcision, ablutions, and so forth, and forbade certain foods as unclean or defiling, was a foreshadowing of more perfect things to come. Christ replaced the types and shadows by the realities which they forecast.
When prophecy is fulfilled, it ceases to be prophecy. But not a single prophecy, even in the slightest detail, passed or will pass until it has been or will be perfectly realized. When the reality replaces the shadow, the purpose of the shadow to forecast and proclaim the approach of the reality has been fulfilled; the shadow has discharged its usefulness and then it comes to an end. As to the moral law, contained principally in the Ten Commandments, it was perfected by Christ, as is clear from the several points He took up in detail in the Sermon on the Mount. He clarified it, extended, broadened and deepened its application.
THE MOSAIC LAW IN CHRISTIANITY
So, not the least detail of the Mosaic law passed, until it had been fulfilled. If imperfect, it was perfected; if prophetic, it was realized. If it was a type, it was superseded by the reality which it foreshadowed. So, just as the shadow in some way remains in the reality, and just as the prophecy is found in its fulfillment, and the less perfect moral precept is contained in its fuller explanation, so the law of Moses remains in the Christian law.
But in another sense the Old Law ceases to be. This is the teaching of St. Paul. He unmistakably expresses it in the following words: "But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian" (Gal. 3:22-25).
The law is here described as a custodian. Literally it means a bodyguard of a child. It designates the slave who was entrusted with the physical care of the child from the age of six to sixteen. Among his other functions he was to lead the child to the schoolmaster. And such is the idea St. Paul sought to convey here. Christ is the teacher, the law of Moses was the slave whose duty it was to watch over God's people and little by little lead them to the feet of the Master. When the law had accomplished that duty, it ceased to be; its work was done, its usefulness ended. In other words, the law of Moses gives place to the law of Christ.
St. Paul says this to the Ephesians (Eph. 2:14-15): "For he (Jesus Christ) is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances . . ." And to the Colossians he writes: "And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross" (Col. 2:13-14).
This repeal of the law of Moses included the Sabbath. "Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Col. 2:16-17).
"A YOKE UPON THE NECK"
Clearly then the law of Moses as such has been abrogated by Christ according to the teaching of His divinely directed spokesman, the Apostle Paul. With this teaching the rest of the Apostles agreed. Peter had been granted a special vision in which it was made known to him that the law of Moses no longer was binding, and this view was solemnly ratified by all the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem: "Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). The yoke of which he spoke was the law of Moses.
It should not be thought, however, that the moral law, contained in the law of Moses, has lost its binding force. The moral element of the law is definitely sanctified by Christ; but it is no longer the law of Moses; it is the law of Christ, and from Him has its obliging force. The part of the Sabbath law which binds us to acknowledge God, and set aside some time for His worship is part of the moral law, but that part which specifies the Sabbath as the Lord's day, is part of the ceremonial law, which no longer binds. The duty of acknowledging the Creator by appropriate acts of worship is unalterable, for it is in the very nature of things.
Circumcision and all such ritual observances, including the observance of the Sabbath as the day to be held especially "holy to the Lord," are things of the past. To insist on returning to the Sabbath of the Old Testament and make it binding on Christians would be to expose oneself to the embarrassing question of St. Paul: "But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more?" (Gal. 4:9). To do this would be in the language of St. Paul, to frustrate God's grace: "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose" (Gal. 2:21).
TO FULFILL THE LAW OF MOSES
Our Lord's actions indicate what He meant when He said that He had come to fulfill the law of Moses. He frequently came into conflict with the Jewish doctors of the law in regard to the Sabbath. He would have no part of the narrow, rigoristic interpretation of the Sabbath rest. For example one day when He and the Apostles were passing a field of ripened grain they began to pick a few heads, rub them between their hands and eat them. The Pharisees considered this a violation of the Sabbath law.
There was no question about the lawfulness of their helping themselves to another man's grain. The law (Deut. 23:25) permitted a passer-by to pluck a few heads of grain with his hand. But the Pharisees considered this to be reaping which was forbidden on the Sabbath. Our Lord might have argued that plucking a handful of grain could in no way be construed as harvesting in the sense intended by the law, but he appealed rather to the natural law. It permits the satisfaction of hunger, even by means which are otherwise forbidden.
Jesus recalled how David and his group took the shewbread and ate it in violation of the law. Lawfully only the priests could eat this bread. The shewbread was twelve loaves kept before the ark as a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel. Fresh loaves were baked each week, and the old ones were to be eaten by the priests.
Then the Master stated the principle that "the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath." This means that the Sabbath is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Man and his essential needs take precedence over this ritual law. When, therefore, there is a conflict between the Sabbath rest and the needs of man, and both cannot be satisfied, the natural law, which calls for nourishment to sustain man, is given the preference. Thus David and his soldiers on the march, having no other available food, ate the shewbread, which ordinarily only the priests were allowed to eat (Mark 2:23-28).
LORD OF THE SABBATH
Then Jesus made the most significant statement: "The Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath" (Mark 2:28). This implies much more than appears on the surface. The Sabbath law was given by God through Moses. When the Lord says that He is the Master of the Sabbath, He means that He is superior to the law. He can be superior to the law which God Himself has promulgated, only if He is the equal of God. Jesus claimed to be just that. Accordingly He has full authority to interpret His own law, to modify it, to apply it or to suspend and abrogate it, should He choose to do so.
Another statement of the Master, rich in meaning, is: "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice" (Matt. 12:7). Here He does not condemn ritual as such, but merely puts it in its place. It is always to take second place whenever it conflicts with the requirements of charity, of love for God and for one's fellowman. The observance of the Sabbath as the day of rest and worship is a matter of ritual.
There are several accounts of cures effected by Jesus on the Sabbath. In each case the Pharisees took exception to His actions, because they were performed on the Sabbath. Remember that according to the prevailing interpretation of the time, it was considered a violation of the Sabbath rest to heal a sick person on the Sabbath, unless the patient was in danger of death. Our Lord healed a man's withered hand on the Sabbath. When the doctors of the law objected, He told them that they would permit a man to draw out an animal from a pit into which it had fallen on the Sabbath; why then should they object to aiding a sick man on the Sabbath? He showed their inconsistency (Matt. 12:9-14).
On another Sabbath a woman bent almost double by curvature of the spine was in the synagogue. By merely laying His hand on her, Jesus instantly cured her, and she stood erect for the first time in eighteen years. She glorified God for the marvelous cure, but the leader of the synagogue objected to its having been performed on the Sabbath. Jesus appealed to common sense, and drew a parallel between what He had just done and what the strictest doctor of the law would allow on the Sabbath.
They would allow a man to untie his ox or ass on the Sabbath and lead it to the watering trough, provided the untying could be done with one hand. The Master with that in mind said, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?" (Luke 13:10-17).
THE BLIND MAN SEES
On another Sabbath, Jesus restored sight to a man blind from birth. The Pharisees found fault with the Lord for this, but dared not debate the matter with Him. His logic had bested them too many times. So, they conducted a thorough inquiry, interrogating the once-blind man and his parents.
The man who was enjoying the thrill of seeing for the first time in his life, seems also to have had very clear mental vision as well. For when the Pharisees labeled Jesus a sinner, the cured man replied with forceful logic: "Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing" (John 9:1-33).
From these and other examples, it can be seen how Jesus began to transform and change the Sabbath law. The first change was in regard to the prohibition of work. From the strict and absolutely literal understanding of the command "You shall do no work," with its total disregard of man's well-being, our Lord passes to the common sense interpretation, the intelligent explanation and application of the law. The Sabbath is not an end in itself. It is for the benefit of man. Man does not exist for the sake of the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for the sake of man. Consequently, whenever human welfare suffers because of the prohibition of work on the Sabbath, the law is automatically suspended by the higher law, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Incidentally this law of love for one's fellowmen is but an extension of the law which binds us to love God, "the great and first commandment." And the second is like it, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39). Men are made in the image and likeness of God, and it is impossible to love God truly and sincerely while hating His children who are made in His image. With this in mind St. John writes, "If any one says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar" (1 John 4:20).
Accordingly love of our fellowmen and care for their needs takes precedence in our Lord's view over the strict letter-of-the-law interpretation of the Sabbath rest.
THE NEW COVENANT
The Old Testament prophets foretold a New Covenant. The Old Covenant would cease to be, and would be replaced by the New and more perfect Covenant. This clearly was the mission of our Lord. The prophet Jeremiah foretold, "Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord" (Jer. 31: 31-32).
This prophecy was fulfilled by our Lord. Every covenant is sanctioned by a sacrifice. Our Lord sanctioned and inaugurated the New Covenant with His own sacrifice on Calvary. The Last Supper was to be repeated in memory of that supreme sacrifice. At the Last Supper our Lord expressly declared that the chalice which He gave the Apostles to drink was "my blood of the new covenant" (Matt. 26:28).
This is sometimes translated "testament" but the word behind it both in Hebrew (berith) and in Greek (diatheke) undoubtedly means covenant, at least in this context. In fact the two major divisions of the Bible are the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The first part of the Bible gives the story of the Old Covenant; the second part gives the story of the New Covenant.
The second change was the substitution of the new sacrifice, the sacrifice of Calvary, for the animal sacrifices which the old law ordained for the Sabbath. This sacrifice is memorialized in the Lord's Supper. Catholics call this the Mass.
The Epistle to the Hebrews says of the Old Covenant: "In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away" (Heb. 8:13). "A former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness" (Heb. 7:18). "But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry which is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second" (Heb. 8:6-7). "For the law (of Moses) made nothing perfect" (Heb. 7:19). The Old Covenant had only sacrifices "which can never take away sins" (Heb. 10:11).
It was because of the imperfection of the Old Covenant, and its inability to take away sin or bring anything to perfection, that Jesus came to establish the New Covenant. "Therefore he (Christ) is the mediator of the new covenant" (Heb. 9:15).
As already pointed out, there were two signs of the Old Covenant: circumcision (Gen. 17:11) and the observance of the Sabbath (Ex. 31:13). When the Old Covenant was revoked, so also were the signs thereof. Just as circumcision is no longer of obligation-"If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you" (Gal. 5:2), so the Sabbath observance ceases to bind. Accordingly St. Paul wrote to the Colossians: "Let no one pass judgment on you . . . with regard to . . . a sabbath" (Col. 2:16).
As Jesus Christ inaugurated the New Covenant, so too He inaugurated new signs. The rite of initiation into the Old Covenant was circumcision; in the New Covenant it is Baptism (Matt. 28:18). St. Paul explains that Baptism is a putting on of Christ, and that it serves as a principle of unification (Gal. 3:27-29). By it we become members of His body, the Church (Rom. 6:3-6).
The third change was in the new holy day, or Lord's Day. There are evidences in the New Testament of the beginning of the substitution of the first day of the week (Sunday) for the Sabbath (Saturday) as the day especially to be consecrated to God by prayer and worship.
The initial indication that the first day was observed and made holy in a special way is found in Acts 20:7. "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them." Here we note the elements of Sunday worship as it is followed in the Church to this day: 1) the breaking of bread, which designates the celebration of the Lord's Supper (Catholics call it the Mass); 2) the sermon.
THE FIRST DAY OF THE WEEK
The second indication is found in 1 Corinthians 16:2: "On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper." St. Paul here refers to the collection for the poor Christians of Palestine. He had requested it because there was a great deal of hardship and poverty among the Jewish Christians of Palestine. As a result of their conversion they suffered many privations, because they had incurred the ill will of their fellow Jews.
St. Paul thought that the most opportune time for gathering the offerings of the faithful was on the first day of the week. Why? Only one reason can be assigned. It is that on this day each week the faithful gathered for their religious unions and the celebration of the Lord's Supper or, as it is called today, the Mass.
Why is it that St. Luke in the Acts says that the assembly at which Paul celebrated the Lord's Supper, gathered on the first day of the week? St. Luke was not interested in the day of the week for its own sake, nor was he concerned with merely giving a calendar date. The proof of this is that nowhere in the Acts does he specify the day of the week on which this or that momentous missionary journey began, or this or that significant event took place.
The only exception is that he frequently mentions that Paul and the other missionaries went to the synagogue on the Sabbath.
Why this exception to his regular practice? Because this was a certain way of securing a good-sized audience to listen to their message. The Jews gathered regularly in their synagogues on the Sabbath. It was not to celebrate any distinctively Christian service.
The Acts indicate that the Lord's Supper from the very beginning was celebrated in one or another home of the Christians (Acts 2:42-46). "Breaking of bread" is a technical way of designating the Lord's Supper!
You may read the Gospels from beginning to end, and the Acts also, and you cannot but note that the authors do not give precise dates. They do not specify the day of the week, the month or the year when the tremendously significant events they describe took place.
There is one remarkable exception to this. They clearly specify when our Lord worked cures on the Sabbath, because such a note was required to explain the argument which ensued with the Pharisees about the violation of the Sabbath.
The Evangelists also note not once but several times that our Lord rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Sunday). The reason for this was to show that He kept His promise to rise on the third day.
A DAY OF TRIUMPH
There was another reason. It was to mark the first day of the week as especially sacred. It was the day of the Lord's greatest triumph, His resurrection. It was also the day of humanity's greatest triumph, for we shall all rise with Him at the end of time.
There is still another reason why the first day of the week was chosen as the Christians' distinctive holy day. The first day, or Sunday, was the day on which the Christian Church was officially inaugurated by the coming of the Holy Spirit and the abundant outpouring of His graces and fruits on the Apostles. So great were the results of this outpouring that the Apostles were instantly transformed into giants of courage. No danger, no threat could intimidate or prevent them from boldly and forcefully proclaiming the glad news of salvation in public at every opportunity. The day, Pentecost, is often referred to as the birthday of the Church. It was a Sunday.
One last reason for selecting the first day of the week, Sunday, instead of the last day, the Sabbath or Saturday, was to distinguish the Christians from the Jews, and Christianity from the religion of Moses. The Jewish holy day was the Sabbath or Saturday. The Christians chose Sunday under the leadership of our Lord's official spokesmen, the Apostles, as their weekly day of prayer and worship.
The foregoing reasons throw a bright light on the reason why St. Luke, in Acts 20:7, specifies that it was the first day of the week on which the gathering at Ephesus took place, and why St. Paul suggested that the collection be taken up at Corinth on that day (1 Cor. 16:2).
We have therefore adequate information that the first day of the week or Sunday, as it later came to be called, was the holy day for the early Christians, and that it was so with the approval of the Apostles.
COUNCIL OF JERUSALEM
It is significant and well worth noting that the Council of Jerusalem, reported in Acts 15, enacted certain laws. This Council was presided over by Peter, and the other Apostles were in attendance. A law was passed that the Gentile converts to Christianity were expressly exempted from the law of Moses, but there were a few exceptions. "Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions . . . it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity" (Acts 15:24-29).
This decree expressly exempted the Gentiles from the law of Moses with a few exceptions. But the observance of the Sabbath is not among those exceptions. The conclusion is fully justified, therefore, in view of the indications already given that the first day of the week or Sunday has already become the holy day of the Christians, that the Apostles had already sanctioned the practice of keeping the first day of the week as the Lord's day or the holy day.
The Divine Wisdom is gentle in putting its plans into effect. "She reaches from end to end and orders all things sweetly." God dealt considerately with the feelings of the converts from Judaism. The first converts to Christianity, Jews deeply attached to the law of Moses, were tenderly weaned from their old religion. There was no abrupt, violent, cruel break with the past. The dead leaves of Judaism fell off gradually, they were not rudely torn off by men. First, the new religion with its new doctrines, its new rites, its new observance was established while the old continued to exist alongside of it. Did not the new religion have its roots in Judaism? Was not Christianity the full flowering of Judaism? Judaism deserved to be treated with consideration; it deserved to be given a decent burial.
But little by little, under the guidance of the Apostles and the Holy Spirit, the Christians came to realize that the new practices and the new observances contained and improved on all that was good in the old religion. Thus circumcision was succeeded by the new rite of Baptism. To the bloody sacrifices of the old law succeeded the sacrifice of Calvary, to be memorialized and re-presented in the rite of the Lord's Supper (the Mass of the Catholics). And so, little by little, the first day of the week, Sunday, was substituted for the Sabbath as the day for general worship and rest.
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