The beneficent Creator, after the six days of Creation, rested on the seventh day and instituted the Sabbath for all people as a memorial of Creation. The fourth commandment of God’s unchangeable law requires the observance of this seventh-day Sabbath as the day of rest, worship, and ministry in harmony with the teaching and practice of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day of delightful communion with God and one another. It is a symbol of our redemption in Christ, a sign of our sanctification, a token of our allegiance, and a foretaste of our eternal future in God’s kingdom. The Sabbath is God’s perpetual sign of His eternal covenant between Him and His people. Joyful observance of this holy time from evening to evening, sunset to sunset, is a celebration of God’s creative and redemptive acts.
The following was taken from a Question and Answer article from the Adventist magazine, Signs of the Times.
When your article “Why My Saturdays Are Sabbaths” [June 1999] came out, I couldn’t wait to read it. But while it really made good sense from your point of view, I felt I was still in the dark. I don’t understand why a Christian denomination is practicing a Jewish Sabbath. How do you know which parts of Old Testament law to follow and which to disregard? I’ve discovered that find the Jews couldn’t do a whole lot of stuff on the Sabbath, like take too many steps or say certain things.
-Brandon Carver, Pipestone, Minnesota
Your question brings up two important issues, the first about the Sabbath being Jewish and the second about applying Old Testament laws in New Testament times. I’ll do my best to respond to each issue.
A Jewish Sabbath?
For many centuries there’s been a common perception among Christians that the Sabbath is Jewish. The most important reason is that the Sabbath figures prominently in the Ten Commandments, which were given on Sinai to the Israelites shortly after they left Egypt. And second, Jews have been the major observers of the seventh-day Sabbath throughout history.
However, if the Sabbath were to be truly Jewish, it would have to have been given only to the Jews. But if you’ll check the first two chapters of Genesis, you’ll discover that the Sabbath originated at Creation, not at Sinai. The Bible says that after God had created the physical world in six days, He “rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”1
Compare that with the reason God gave in Exodus 20:11 for keeping the Sabbath and you’ll discover a striking similarity between the two passages:
“For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore [for that reason] the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
God made the seventh day holy at Creation, and then, at Sinai, when He gave the Sabbath commandment, He gave His work of creation as the reason why He made the Sabbath holy.
When Jesus was on earth, He said that “the Sabbath was made for man.”2 Two points are important here. First, the Sabbath was made. It is a part of God’s creation. And second, it was made for man. Not just for the Jews but for the entire human race.
So God gave the Sabbath as a gift to everyone, not just the Jews.
Which Old Testament laws?
Several people have written me recently wanting to know how to tell which Old Testament laws Christians should heed. The first thing we need to keep in mind is that God gave several types of law on Sinai. The most important was the Ten Commandments, which nearly all Christians today recognize are foundational moral principles that apply to all humans at all times. And the Sabbath is one of these commandments. You wouldn’t say that the commandments against murder or stealing or adultery are “Jewish,” would you? Then why should the Sabbath commandment be just for the Jews?
But, on Sinai, God gave the Israelites at least three other types of law: temple laws, health laws, and civil laws. The temple laws spelled out very precisely the rituals that the priests were to go through in their ministry in the sanctuary. Among these laws were those governing the sacrifice of animals, the ministry of the priests within the tabernacle, and various annual holy days and feast days (some of which were also called “sabbaths”). Christians understand that the laws governing the temple rituals pointed forward to Christ and reached their fulfillment with Him. Therefore, we need no longer practice them. The Bible is quite clear about that.
Many of the health laws that God gave the Israelites still make very good sense today. For example, God forbade the eating of the fat of animals. Modern medical science has demonstrated that animal fat is especially high in cholesterol. God commanded the Israelites to bury their excrement. That makes extremely good sense in light of the germ theory, which the ancient Israelites did not understand but which we do today.
In other words, if an Old Testament health law makes good sense today for medical and health reasons, then it’s wise to follow it even if we aren’t “keeping it” in quite the sense that the Jews did (or in some cases still do). That is one of the major reasons why Seventh-day Adventists avoid the use of the biblically unclean animals.
Numerous civil laws governed the everyday life of the Israelites in Old Testament times, much as the constitution and laws of the United States, Canada, and other nations govern us today. Again, many of these laws still make good sense-human beings are still human beings, after all. For example, God gave the Israelites laws saying a person must repay someone else whose property he or she damages, and we have similar civil laws today. But some of those laws were clearly for that time only, like the laws controlling the Israelites’ treatment of their slaves. Those laws clearly are inappropriate today.
One other point: Be sure, when you’re inquiring about which Old Testament laws apply to Christians, that you are looking at genuine Old Testament laws. For example, you said that the Jews couldn’t do a whole lot of stuff on the Sabbath, like take too many steps or say certain things. A careful study of both Old and New Testaments makes it very clear that some of the Jewish religious leaders of Christ’s time had loaded the Sabbath down with hundreds of extra-biblical rules and regulations. They could only walk so far, and they could carry only so much weight, and they could only do this, and they could only do that. None of those rules appear anywhere in the Old Testament. In other words, if there is a “Jewish” Sabbath, it isn’t the Sabbath of the fourth commandment. It’s what the religious people at Christ’s time had made of the Sabbath. And that kind of Sabbath I reject as much as you do.
So, to return to your original question, How can we know which parts of Old Testament law apply today and which do not? First, the Ten Commandments are God’s great moral standard of right and wrong. They are the foundation on which the verdicts of God’s final judgment are based, and to this day they summarize our obligations to God and our fellow human beings. Fortunately, conservative Christian people today are revealing a growing interest in the Ten Commandment law.
Second, the temple ritual was entirely done away with when Jesus died on the cross because He Himself was the great fulfillment of its prophetic types. And third, many of the health and civil laws of the Old Testament continue to provide us with practical guidance today even though some of their specific commands were for the Israelite culture, not ours.
Editor, Signs of the Times