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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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The obligation of a sabbatical institution upon Christians, as well as the extent of it, have been the subjects of much controversy. Christian churches themselves have differed; and the theologians of the same church. Much has been written upon the subject on each side, and much research and learning employed, sometimes to darken a very plain subject. The question respects the will of God as to this particular point,— Whether one day in seven is to be wholly devoted to religion, exclusive of worldly business and worldly pleasures. Now, there are but two ways in which the will of God can be collected from his word; either by some explicit injunction upon all, or by incidental circumstances. Let us then allow, for a moment, that we have no such explicit injunction; yet we have certainly none to the contrary: let us allow that we have only for our guidance, in inferring the will of God in this particular, certain circumstances declarative of his will; yet this important conclusion is inevitable, that all such indicative circumstances are in favour of a sabbatical institution, and that there is not one which exhibits any thing contrary to it. The seventh day was hallowed at the close of the creation; its sanctity was afterward marked by the withholding of the manna on that day, and the provision of a double supply on the sixth, and that previous to the giving of the law from Sinai: it was then made a part of that great epitome of religious and moral duty, which God wrote with his own finger on tables of stone; it was a part of the public political law of the only people to whom almighty God ever made himself a political Head and Ruler; its observance is connected throughout the prophetic age with the highest promises, its violations with the severest maledictions; it was among the Jews in our Lord's time a day of solemn religious assembling, and was so observed by him; when changed to the first day of the week, it was the day on which the first Christians assembled; it was called, by way of eminence, "the Lord's day;" and we have inspired authority to say, that both under the Old and New Testament dispensations, it is used as an expressive type of the heavenly and eternal rest. Now, against all these circumstances so strongly declarative of the will of God, as to the observance of a sabbatical institution, what circumstance or passage of Scripture can be opposed, as bearing upon it a contrary indication? Certainly, not one; for those passages in St. Paul, in which he speaks of Jewish Sabbaths, with their Levitical rites, and of a distinction of days, the observance of which marked a weak or a criminal adherence to the abolished ceremonial dispensation; touch not the Sabbath as a branch of the moral law, or as it was changed, by the authority of the Apostles, to the first day of the week. If, then, we were left to determine the point by inference, the conclusion must be irresistibly in favour of the institution.

It may also be observed, that those who will so strenuously insist upon the absence of an express command as to the Sabbath in the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles, as explicit as that of the decalogue, assume, that the will of God is only obligatory when manifested in some one mode, which they judge to be most fit. But this is a dangerous hypothesis; for, however the will of God may be manifested, if it is with such clearness as to exclude all reasonable doubt, it is equally obligatory as when it assumes the formality of legal promulgation. Thus the Bible is not all in the form of express and authoritative command; it teaches by examples, by proverbs, by songs, by incidental allusions and occurrences; and yet is, throughout, a manifestation of the will of God as to morals and religion in their various branches, and, if disregarded, it will be so at every man's peril. But strong as this ground is, we quit it for a still stronger. It is wholly a mistake, that the Sabbath, because not reenacted with the formality of the decalogue, is not explicitly enjoined upon Christians, and that the testimony of Scripture to such an injunction is not unequivocal and irrefragable. The Sabbath was appointed at the creation of the world, and sanctified, or set apart for holy purposes, "for man," for all men, and therefore for Christians; since there was never any repeal of the original institution. To this we add, that if the moral law be the law of Christians, then is the Sabbath as explicitly enjoined upon them as upon the Jews. But that the moral law is our law, as well as the law of the Jews, all but Antinomians must acknowledge; and few, we suppose, will be inclined to run into the fearful mazes of that error, in order to support lax notions as to the obligation of the Sabbath; into which, however, they must be plunged, if they deny the law of the decalogue to be binding. That it is so bound upon us, a few passages of Scripture will prove as well as many. Our Lord declares, that he "came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil." Take it, that by "the law," he meant both the moral and the ceremonial; ceremonial law could only be fulfilled in him, by realizing its types; and moral law, by upholding its authority. For "the prophets," they admit of a similar distinction; they either enjoin morality, or utter prophecies of Christ; the latter of which were fulfilled in the sense of accomplishment, the former by being sanctioned and enforced. That the observance of the Sabbath is a part of the moral law, is clear from its being found in the decalogue, the doctrine of which our Lord sums up in the moral duties of loving God and our neighbour; and for this reason the injunctions of the prophets, on the subject of the Sabbath, are to be regarded as a part of their moral teaching. Some divines have, it is true, called the observance of the Sabbath, a positive, and not a moral precept. If it were so, its obligation is precisely the same, in all cases where God himself has not relaxed it; and if a positive precept only, it has surely a special eminence given to it, by being placed in the list of the ten commandments, and being capable, with them, of an epitome which resolves them into the love of God and our neighbour. The truth seems to be, that it is a mixed precept, and not wholly positive, but intimately, perhaps essentially connected with several moral principles of homage to God, and mercy to men; with the obligation of religious worship, of public religious worship, and of undistracted public worship: and this will account for its collocation in the decalogue with the highest duties of religion, and the leading rules of personal and social morality. The passage from our Lord's sermon on the mount, with its context, is a sufficiently explicit enforcement of the moral law, generally, upon his followers; but when he says, "The Sabbath was made for man," he clearly refers to its original institution, as a universal law, and not to its obligation upon the Jews only, in consequence of the enactments of the law of Moses. It "was made for man," not as he may be a Jew, or a Christian; but as man, a creature bound to love, worship, and obey his God and Maker, and on his trial for eternity.

Another explicit proof that the law of the ten commandments, and, consequently, the law of the Sabbath, is obligatory upon Christians, is found in the answer of the Apostle to an objection to the doctrine of justification by faith: "Do we then make void the law through faith?"

Romans 3:31; which is equivalent to asking, Does Christianity teach that the law is no longer obligatory on Christians, because it teaches that no man can be justified by it? To this he answers, in the most solemn form of expression, "God forbid; yea, we establish the law." Now, the sense in which the Apostle uses the term, "the law," in this argument, is indubitably marked in Romans 7:7 : "I had not known sin but by the law; for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet:" which, being a plain reference to the tenth command of the decalogue, as plainly shows that the decalogue is "the law" of which he speaks. This, then, is the law which is established by the Gospel; and this can mean nothing else but the establishment and confirmation of its authority, as the rule of all inward and outward holiness. Whoever, therefore, denies the obligation of the Sabbath on Christians, denies the obligation of the whole decalogue; and there is no real medium between the acknowledgment of the divine authority of this sacred institution, as a universal law, and that gross corruption of Christianity, generally designated Antinomianism.

Nor is there any force in the dilemma into which the anti-sabbatarians would push us, when they argue, that, if the case be so, then are we bound to the same circumstantial exactitude of obedience with regard to this command, as to the other precepts of the decalogue; and, therefore, that we are bound to observe the seventh day, reckoning from Saturday, as the Sabbath day. But, as the command is partly positive, and partly moral, it may have circumstances which are capable of being altered in perfect accordance with the moral principles on which it rests, and the moral ends which it proposes. Such circumstances are not indeed to be judged of on our own authority. We must either have such general principles for our guidance as have been revealed by God, and cannot therefore be questioned, or some special authority from which there can be no just appeal. Now, though there is not on record any divine command issued to the Apostles, to change the Sabbath from the day on which it was held by the Jews, to the first day of the week; yet, when we see that this was done in the apostolic age, and that St. Paul speaks of the Jewish Sabbaths as not being obligatory upon Christians, while he yet contends that the whole moral law is obligatory upon them; the fair inference is, that this change of the day was made by divine direction. It is indeed more than inference that the change was made under the sanction of inspired men; and those men, the appointed rulers in the church of Christ; whose business it was to "set all things in order," which pertained to its worship and moral government.

We may therefore rest well enough satisfied with this,—that as a Sabbath is obligatory upon us, we act under apostolic authority for observing it on the first day of the week, and thus commemorate at once the creation and the redemption of the world.

Thus, even if it were conceded, that the change of the day was made by the agreement of the Apostles, without express directions from Christ, which is not probable, it is certain that it was not done without that general authority which was confided to them by Christ; but it would not follow even from this change, that they did in reality make any alteration in the law of the Sabbath, either as it stood at the time of its original institution at the close of the creation, or in the decalogue of Moses. The same portion of time which constituted the seventh day from the creation could not be observed in all parts of the earth; and it is not probable, therefore, that the original law expresses more, than that a seventh day, or one day in seven, the seventh day after six days of labour, should be thus appropriated, from whatever point the enumeration might set out, or the hebdomadal cycle begin. For if more had been intended, then it would have been necessary to establish a rule for the reckoning of days themselves, which has been different in different nations; some reckoning from evening to evening, as the Jews now do, others from midnight to midnight, &c. So that those persons in this country and in America, who hold their sabbath on Saturday, under the notion of exactly conforming to the Old Testament, and yet calculate the days from midnight to midnight, have no assurance at all that they do not desecrate a part of the original Sabbath, which might begin, as the Jewish Sabbath now, on Friday evening, and, on the contrary, hallow a portion of a common day, by extending the Sabbath beyond Saturday evening. Even if this were ascertained, the differences of latitude and longitude would throw the whole into disorder; and it is not probable that a universal law should have been fettered with that circumstantial exactness, which would have rendered difficult, and sometimes doubtful, astronomical calculations necessary in order to its being obeyed according to the intention of the lawgiver. Accordingly we find, says Mr. Holden, that in the original institution it is stated in general terms, that God blessed and sanctified the seventh day, which must undoubtedly imply the sanctity of every seventh day; but not that it is to be subsequently reckoned from the first demiurgic day. Had this been included in the command of the Almighty, something, it is probable, would have been added declaratory of the intention; whereas expressions the most undefined are employed; not a syllable is uttered concerning the order and number of the days; and it cannot reasonably be disputed that the command is truly obeyed by the separation of every seventh day, from common to sacred purposes, at whatever given time the cycle may commence. The difference in the mode of expression here, from that which the sacred historian has used in the first chapter, is very remarkable. At the conclusion of each division of the work of creation, he says, "The evening and the morning were the first day," and so on; but at the termination of the whole, he merely calls it the seventh day; a diversity of phrase, which, as it would be inconsistent with every idea of inspiration to suppose it undesigned, must have been intended to denote a day, leaving it to each people as to what manner it is to be reckoned. The term obviously imports the period of the earth's rotation round its axis, while it is left undetermined, whether it shall be counted from evening or morning, from noon or midnight. The terms of the law are, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it." With respect to time, it is here mentioned in the same indefinite manner as at its primeval institution, nothing more being expressly required than to observe a day of sacred rest after every six days of labour. The seventh day is to be kept holy; but not a word is said as to what epoch the commencement of the series is to be referred; nor could the Hebrews have determined from the decalogue, what day of the week was to be kept as their Sabbath. The precept is not, Remember the seventh day of the week, to keep it holy, but, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy;" and in the following explication of these expressions, it is not said that the seventh day of the week is the Sabbath, but without restriction, "The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God;" not the seventh according to any particular method of computing the septenary cycle, but, in reference to the six before mentioned, every seventh day in rotation after six of labour.

Thus that part of the Jewish law, the decalogue, which, on the authority of the New Testament, we have shown to be obligatory upon Christians, leaves the computation of the hebdomadal cycle undetermined; and, after six days of labour, enjoins the seventh as the Sabbath, to which the Christian practice as exactly conforms as the Jewish. It is not, however, left to every individual to determine which day should be his Sabbath, though he should fulfil the law so far as to abstract the seventh part of his time from labour. It was ordained for worship, for public worship; and it is therefore necessary that the Sabbath should be uniformly observed by a whole community at the same time. The divine Legislator of the Jews interposed for this end, by special direction, as to his people. The first Sabbath kept in the wilderness was calculated from the first day in which the manna fell; and with no apparent reference to the creation of the world. By apostolic authority, it is now fixed to be held on the first day of the week; and thus one of the great ends for which it was established, that it should be a day of "holy convocation," is secured.

Traces of the original appointment of the Sabbath; and of its observance prior to the giving forth of the law of Moses, have been found by the learned in the tradition which universally prevailed of the sacredness of the number seven, and the fixing of the first period of time to the revolution of seven days. The measuring of time by a day and night is pointed out to the common sense of mankind by the diurnal course of the sun. Lunar months and solar years are equally obvious to all rational creatures; so that the reason why time has been computed by days, months, and years, is readily given; but how the division of time into weeks of seven days, and this from the beginning, came to obtain universally among mankind, no man can account for, without having respect to some impressions on the minds of men from the constitution and law of nature, with the tradition of a sabbatical rest from the foundation of the world. Yet plain intimations of this weekly revolution of time are to be found in the earliest Greek poets: Hesiod, Homer, Linus, as well as among the nations of the Chaldeans, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. It deserves consideration, too, on this subject, that Noah, in sending forth the dove out of the ark, observed the septenary revolution of days, Genesis 8:10; Genesis 8:12; and at a subsequent period, in the days of the Patriarch Jacob, a week is spoken of as a well known period of time, Genesis 29:27; Judges 14:12; Judges 14:15; Judges 14:17 . These considerations are surely sufficient to evince the futility of the arguments which are sometimes plausibly urged for the first institution of the Sabbath under the law; and the design of which, in most cases is, to set aside the moral obligation of appropriating one day in seven to the purposes of the public worship of God, and the observation of divine ordinances. But the truth is, that the seventh day was set apart from the beginning as a day of rest; and it was also strictly enjoined upon the Israelites in their law, both on the ground of its original institution, Exodus 20:8-11 , and also to commemorate their deliverance from the bondage of Egypt, Deuteronomy 5:15 .

"A Sabbath day's journey" was reckoned to be two thousand cubits, or one mile, Acts 1:12 . The sabbatical year was celebrated among the Jews every seventh year when the land was left without culture, Exodus 22:10 . God appointed the observation of the sabbatical year, to preserve the remembrance of the creation of the world, to enforce the acknowledgment of his sovereign authority over all things, and in particular over the land of Canaan, which he had given to the Israelites, by delivering up the fruits to the poor and the stranger. It was a sort of tribute, or small rent, by which they held the possession. Beside, he intended to inculcate humanity upon his people, by commanding that they should resign to the slaves, the poor, and the strangers, and to the brutes, the produce of their fields, of their vineyards, and of their gardens. In the sabbatical year all debts were remitted, and the slaves were liberated, Exodus 21:2; Deuteronomy 15:2 .

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Sabbath'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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