The attitude to the 7th day of rest in the Bible is indicative. In the Old Testament, it is a strict observation – no work at all is to be done. All commerce must close down. The day belongs to God and must be observed as such. With time, and a loss of the sense of dedication to God, that observance evidently became a slavish rule – an observance of the letter, but dead as concerns the spirit and meaning.
And that is what we meet with at the close of chapter 2 of Mark’s Gospel and the beginning of chapter 3. Jesus exposes the self righteous regulation observance of the Pharisees. That a person should be healed by God on the Sabbath was an affront – never mind the fact that God had chosen to bless someone on the day of the week supposedly dedicated to God.
The Pharisees observe the form, forgetting the Purpose. Jesus however points to God, and honours God and honours God’s commitment to his people by healing the man with the withered hand in the synagogue – the place where the Jews met on the Sabbath day to honour God.
This question of the Sabbath observance goes to the heart of the need for a New Testament – a new Covenant – which as the prophet Jeremiah had predicted, God would write on the hearts of his people. Inward, meaningful commitment to God, not just outward observance of a Rule. [Jeremiah chapter 31, verses 31 to 34].
This understanding of the Sabbath is explained both by Jesus and by his apostles in the New Testament scriptures.
Jesus says here in Mark, chapter 2 that the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath. And he prefaces his remarks by reference to the Old Testament scriptures to show that he has the proper and proportionate sense of the IV the Commandment in the Decalogue [Exodus chapter 20 and Deuteronomy chapter 5]. He points out that David’s men took of the holy bread in the house of God when they were hungry – clearly stating that compassion for our basic requirements as human beings should not be ruled out by slavish adherence to Rules designed to encourage us to honour God, not destroy us.
But the New Covenant meaning of the Sabbath rest is explained by the apostle Paul in chapter 4 of his letter to the Hebrews. The Sabbath rest of the New Testament is to be found IN CHRIST. Literally, believing and trusting in Jesus Christ – when a person relies upon Christ’s righteousness and not their own, because they realise that no human being can have any righteousness of their own before God who is utterly holy and perfect.
We now depend on Christ’s righteousness and on his strength to live our lives – not our own fallen, human resources and ideas.
The Pharisees of the Old Testament dispensation however fell into the psychological trap of asserting their own righteousness by slavish adherence to a Rule. They lost sight of God himself; of his Holiness; of his grace and provision.
But what of the observance of a special day. Should believers not set aside a certain day for God ?
Well, certainly the early church established the custom of meeting on the first day of the week to worship God, that is the day after the Jewish Sabbath day. The Acts of the apostles is clear about this.
But the apostle Paul is also clear about our attitude to treating an entire day as dedicated to God in such a way. Fundamentally, the believers entire life is now lived trusting in Christ and what he has done. That is the New Sabbath Rest Observance. Observing a particular day is a convenience, not a requirement of the New Testament. As the apostle makes clear in his letters to the Galatians, chapter 4 verses 1 to 11 and also in Romans chapter 14.
These two letters make their comments in those later chapters after describing the nature of the New Testament doctrine and lifestyle, namely having a living trust in Jesus Christ, in his righteousness and in his strength and grace, and no longer in ourselves or in our rigidly observing a special set of rules.