New Testament Sabbath: Not Meant to be Kept Legalistically

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            Have you ever encountered a Christian who thought they had some special insight on scriptures? Perhaps they believed their church was the only one with this unique knowledge. Or maybe they thought they were smarter than other pastors, and they found some new truth everyone else was missing. I once had a Christian tell me they were “more saved” because they kept the Mosaic Law. To be fair, I think they realized what they said after they spoke the words, but their attitude didn’t change.

Remember, Paul talked about legalistic Christians saying they were the weaker Christians. Those who are legalistic often think they are the strong ones and have a special insight and better understanding than anyone else. But the reality is just the opposite. The Church is under Grace, not the legalism of the Mosaic Law. All believers have freedom in Christ.

            The Apostle Paul spent a lot of time talking about the dangers of casuistry. In Romans 14:1-4 Paul wrote first regarding food sacrificed to idols:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

            Paul is referring to the fact that idols are nothing, so if an animal is sacrificed to an idol it does not contaminate the meat. Meat that had been sacrificed to idols was generally much cheaper than meat that had not been first offered in sacrifice. Paul is saying since idols are nothing, why not get cheaper meat? However, we are not to judge or “despise” the person who does not do the same things we do. John R. W. Stott wrote The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World.. He talks about this argument Paul is discussing in Romans. He writes, “It is inappropriate to reject somebody whom God has welcomed, it is at least as inappropriate to interfere in the relationship between a master and his oiketes, his household slave. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? (4a). In ordinary life such behavior would be regarded as outrageous and would be deeply resented” (94. 361).

In Romans 14:5-9, Paul goes on to specifically talk about holy days. He writes:

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

            John Stott explains the meaning of Paul’s words regarding holy days and refers to those who are weak and those who are strong saying, “He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord (6a). He does it, that is, ‘in honor of the Lord’ (RSV, JB), with the intention of pleasing and honoring him. And the same is true of the one who regards every day alike” (362). Finally, Stott says, because he is our Lord, we must live for him. Because He is also the Lord of our fellow Christians, we must respect their relationship to him and mind our own business. For he died and rose to be Lord” (362).

            The Apostle Paul again addresses legalism in the book of 1 Corinthians. He once more talks about food saying in 1 Corinthians 8:1-3, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.” This passage by Paul points out how knowledge can make us puffed up, or proud. On the other hand, Paul tells us that love brings edification. He is not saying that knowledge in itself is bad, but knowledge alone is not enough.  Paul is saying in all such matters, whether it be eating, drinking, or keeping or not keeping a specific holy day, we must have love to be an adjunct to our knowledge. We must contemplate not only what is allowed in our freedom as Christians, but also what would be paramount for other believers.  

            Gordon D. Fee wrote a commentary called The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Fee inscribed Paul’s intentions when he wrote 1 Corinthians 8.  He penned:

Once one’s theology is properly in hand, it is especially tempting to use it as a club on others. And in this case, it happens from the theological right as well as from the left. This does not mean that knowledge is either irrelevant or unimportant, but it does mean that it cannot serve as the primary basis of Christian behavior. In Christian ethics ‘knowledge’ must always lead to love. One should always beware of those teachers or systems that entice one by special ‘revelation’ or ‘deeper insights.’ Such appeals are invariably to one’s pride, not to one’s becoming a more truly loving Christian. While it is true that ‘insight’ often leads to ‘freedom,’ it is also true that it often results finally in the demand for ‘freedom’ in the form of ‘rights.’ This is what happened at Corinth. In the Christian faith ‘knowledge’ or ‘insight’ is never an end in itself; it is only a means to a greater end, the building up of others. (1987, 369)

            Contrary to what some who are legalistic might think, Paul says the one with freedom is stronger than the one who is legalistic. A person who is legalistic often thinks they are more knowledgeable and thus are stronger, but Paul clearly says the legalistic Christian is the “weaker brother.” Paul calls out the fallacy of their philosophy.  Vigilance must be taken that one does not take the New Testament sabbath and make it into something it was never meant to be – a legalistic tool to club our Christian brothers and sisters with. God meant it as a gift, not a burden. Keeping a regular Sabbath was never meant to be something for Christians to brag about.

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