Are Christians Obligated Today to Observe the Sabbath?

Photo from Wikipedia entry on Dr. Michael Brown

Photo from Wikipedia entry on Dr. Michael Brown

I listened to a portion of Dr. Michael Brown's Line of Fire radio program last Thursday on whether Shabbat (the Sabbath) is still binding on Christians today.  I have great respect for Dr. Brown; he has done far more of 'the hard work' than most people to 'show himself approved' (tongue-in-cheek; see 2 Tim. 2:15 KJV), earning a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages, serving as an adjunct professor in numerous theological seminaries across the country, and dedicating the majority of his life to the proclamation and demonstration of the kingdom to the Jew first and also to the Gentile—this is a man who has a lot of intelligence and experience under his belt and has used his talents for the glory of God.  However, (we all saw the 'however' coming) while I thoroughly agree with the spirit in which Dr. Brown approaches relationship with God, and though I end up arriving at a lot of the same conclusions as Dr. Brown with regard to interpretation of the Torah (at least where priestly mitzvot are concerned), I have a fundamentally different perspective that differentiates me from both traditional Protestant Christianity and Messianic Judaism on this issue and pushes me toward the Hebrew Roots Movement (though I don't quite go that far).

The main question is really this:  do we believe there are two 'peoples' of God, or one?  Those that would say there are two separate entities of God-worshipersnational Israel and the Churchwill have a totally different foundational point of reference from myself with regard to interpretation, application, and perhaps even the purpose, of the Torah.  Because of this, our journeys to the conclusions we reach are entirely disparate.  I would like Dr. Brown—and all of us—to consider the following points surrounding his program yesterday:

1.  In the general exchange of dialogue from both sides, it seemed to be forgotten that we are all one in Messiah.  In these types of conversations, it is very typical to hear the idea that God has a different standard for Jews than He does for Gentiles—that He never required Gentiles to obey the Law anyway, and so only Jews need to obey the Torah.  The standard mantra is that "Acts 15 settled the issue." Some (IMPORTANT: not ALL) Messianic Jews believe that in the Millennial Kingdom, the Jewish believers will occupy a special status and reign over Gentile Christian believers as a result of their being the 'Chosen People' of God.  Dispensational Protestants believe that the Church will have been Raptured and in heaven during the Millennial Kingdom; but that after the Tribulation, Jesus will reign along with the Jewish believers who were saved during that time and will re-institute the sacrificial system of the Torah, thus moving from 'the age of Law' to 'the age of Grace', and then back to a dispensation of Law again during the Millennial Reign.  Both ideas promote a separation between Jewish believers in Messiah and Gentile believers in Messiah.  Let's look at the background and what the Scriptures say.

Unbeknownst to most people, when the Exodus occurred, the crowd that left Egypt for the Promised Land was actually a 'mixed multitude' (Exodus 12:38).  Many Gentiles journeyed with the Israelites, identified themselves with them, and decided to essentially remain as permanent resident aliens, attaching themselves to the nation of Israel culturally and religiously.  While they remained on the outer rim of the Covenant, having no property or inheritance, and having less rights than native-born Israelites, they were afforded the opportunity—and given the responsibility—of participating in the Covenant by keeping most of the same standards in the Law (Lev. 24:22).  These people were called the ger; Ruth the Moabitess embodied their spirit when she said to her mother-in-law Naomi, "where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God."  This is contrast to the nochri, who wanted nothing to do with Israel, and were considered at best antagonistic neighbors, and at worst, enemy invaders.  When we see foreigners sharing in the Covenant, it is the ger who are participating, and when we see them excluded, it is the nochri.

Over time, during the Second Temple period, the Pharisees changed the idea of the ger slightly to mean a person simply living among the Jews who was somewhat favorable toward them. If the person obeyed what were called the 'Noachide Laws',1 they were separate from the nation, but could interact with Jews and were called a ger toshav. Post-Second Temple Judaism still recognizes Gentiles as such in the designation 'Righteous Among the Nations'.

When the 'Jerusalem Council' was convened in Acts 15, the treatment of the Gentiles who trusted in Jesus as the Messiah came directly from the Pharisaic understanding of the ger toshav. What is fascinating to me is that in their letter to the Gentiles, the Apostles stated that "…it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…" yet, there is no mention of prayer or seeking God on the issue. Interestingly, Paul later contradicts the ruling of the Jerusalem Council in Romans 14 when he says that a Gentile Christian can eat anything in the marketplace, including food that is sacrificed to idols. Furthermore, earlier in Chapters 9-11, Paul throws out a bombshell that revolutionizes the entire framework: essentially, he says to the Gentile: "Guys, you don't realize what God has done for you here. You are no longer just a ger toshav or even the original idea of the ger—you have been made full citizens of the nation of Israel, grafted like wild branches into a native-born olive tree. He cements this understanding for us in his letter to the Ephesians:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.   —Ephesians 2:11-22

So it should be very plain to us that now, in the New Covenant if not before, what is good for the goose is good for the gander—what applies to the Jew applies equally to the Gentile believer. Aside from ethnicity, there is no difference between us. Now the question remains, "Does the Law still apply to any of us?" It seems pretty obvious that Paul is declaring the Law to be set aside in Christ—but not so fast! This brings us to our next point.

2. As an ethnic Jew and great supporter of Israel, Dr. Brown is most certainly not intending to be supersessionist2 in his perspective; however, he came across as such when he used the typical Christian argument of "give me a New Testament Scripture that absolutely commands the Gentile to observe the Sabbath." If we believe that ALL Scripture is God-breathed, why do we insist on dismissing any command that does not have a New Testament proof-text? Being the only Scripture that Jesus and the disciples had, does the Tanakh not stand in its own right? Now of course, I believe—according to Hebrews 7 among many other passages—that the perfect sacrifice and eternal priesthood of Jesus fulfills completely the priestly functions of the Torah, thereby RADICALLY changing our application of Torah observance (See my full treatment of this issue here). This is why Christians can be justified in seemingly ignoring those mitzvot which are priestly in nature—that is, anything having to do with rituals and observances keeping us fit to approach God or legal punishments for the lack thereof, including kashrut laws, tefillin, kippahs and tallits/tzitzit, rote prayers, handwashing, circumcision, blood sacrifice, stoning people to death, pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year, etc.3 Rather than being an absolute replacement item, The New Covenant is like an adapter that fits over the First Covenant, changing some of its practices, but not its promises or meaning (except perhaps to enhance them). It is only because of the death and resurrection of Jesus that we can claim this; otherwise, we would still be obligated to practice every mitzvah verbatim. Instead, we point to Messiah and show that He is our means of access: not one yodh or stroke of the Law has passed away—the priestly mitzvot are continuously being fulfilled in Him—and by default are "…set aside in His flesh with its commands and regulations" as Paul says in the Ephesians passage above.

Rather, we are now uninhibited in our pursuit to understand the true meaning of the Torah: "Hear, O Israel, YHVH is our God, and YHVH alone. So love YHVH your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." And our Messiah explains that the second greatest commandment is like the first: " your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." As Micah 6:8 declares, "He has shown you, O man, what is good and what the LORD requires of you: but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." It is these moral values of the Torah that are part and parcel of our relationship to God and others; everything else is subtext. The other commands—including the priestly mitzvot now fulfilled in Yeshua's sacrifice and priesthood—may serve to further illustrate the moral values and outworking of the two greatest commandments, but at best, they are an overflow of our practice to love God and love people. This is why so many have capitalized on the Ten Commandments: they are a perfect summary of the Torah's values that God is working into us.

Dr. Brown continuously asked in his radio program for a specific New Testament text—given the evidence we have explored, while the following relates to the Torah as a whole rather than specfically to the Sabbath, I would submit that the following is that passage:

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death [priestly mitzvot and punishments thereof]. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

An obligation, you say?  To live by the Spirit of God.  And what does this provide for us in the New Covenant?  Here we must turn back to Jeremiah 31:31-34, the foundational passage which Jesus refrerred to in the Passover when He declared the New Covenant in His blood:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” —Jeremiah 31:31-34

The companion passage to this in Ezekiel 36:22-38 says, "I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws". This is the greater Torah, folks. Bouncing back to the New Covenant, what does Paul say the fruit of the Spirit—the result of the Spirit's work in our life—encompasses? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. These are the values of the Torah to which we have an obligation as we press ourselves into the indwelling Spirit of God.

3. So what about the Sabbath specifically?  The next question would be, is this part of the priestly mitzvot that have been fulfilled by the death, resurrection, and priesthood of Christ, or is the Sabbath still a mitzvot that is binding on us?  Dr. Brown conceded that the Sabbath is a gift instead of a duty, and he agreed with his callers that it was instituted before the Law of Moses (though the behaviors and punishments for disobeying these were first listed in the Law), and that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  Now, given these elements, we can come to an understanding of God's heart on this subject.  We understand that the general principles of the Sabbath are to provide rest for the physical human body, to practice corporate worship of God, and receive fellowship with the Body of Messiah in the gathering of the assembly.  These principles easily fall under the mitzvot to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself—to which we are obligated.  What has changed in the New Covenant are the commands and punishments relating to death and duty, and particularly to the rabbinic interpretations of such things.  Our LORD modeled this behavior for us when He was physically here on the earth.  So we should keep Shabbat in the way that it is intended:  if we are dinking around worrying about flipping a light switch, counting our steps to ensure we do not go beyond the prescribed distance, fearing to drive a car because it might be 'kindling a fire', thinking that somehow God will be displeased with us and strike us dead or other such things, we have missed the point of Shabbat entirely and I would even say we have violated the mitzvot to rest!  Love the LORD, enjoy His Shabbat, and fellowship with your brothers and sisters.

God instituted Shabbat on the seventh day of creation and has not moved it or annulled it in any way since that time.  He is very clear throughout the First Covenant Scriptures that Shabbat is important to Him—not as a priestly mitzvot of the Law but in principle (see especially Isaiah 58).  Despite Paul's comments in Colossians 2:16-23 (which most Christians use as a simple excuse to change the subject), there is no record of any New Covenant believer anywhere who did not celebrate Shabbat—including Paul himself.  I would contend that Paul's remarks are not about whether to celebrate the Sabbath, but with regard to how we celebrate the Feasts.  Look at the passage:  everyone stops at the first verse and moves on; but Paul condemns the priestly mitzvot as having no value—nowhwere does he say that we should not rest, gather together, or worship God on this day!  

Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

My question would be this: being that we worship YHVH, the Jewish God, the God of creation who is the LORD of Shabbat and who instituted it Himself, why would we be at all interested in doing something different than what He asks of us? Dr. Brown's summary of the conversation is that we should take a Romans 14 attitude with regard to celebration of Shabbat; I would agree that this is true regarding how it is we do so—but I would admonish all believers in Christ to consider God's intent surrounding Shabbat and strive after that. My issue is that when we simply declare that we are "no longer under the Law"—misinterpreting Paul's intent when he said these things, we foster an attitude among Gentiles that anything Jewish has been done away with, and that we are no longer accountable for the way we behave. Don't believe me? Look around at what the Church is saying and what it has become. This is why Peter addresses Paul's writings in his epistle as he speaks of righteousness and abstaining from following our own sinful desires:

So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. —2 Peter 3:14-18

If we have been saved from death and have reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, if we worship God in all His glory, we are obligated to do what He says. Fortunately for us, His yoke is easy and His burden is light; He came that we might have abundant life, not so that we would be counting mitzvot, continuously living as slaves of fear and death, nor that would indulge the self-worship nature and fall from the grace that we have obtained from Him. Shabbat Shalom!

1  The Noachide Laws were a set of behaviors that were taken from Genesis 9, specifically verses 4-6; the Pharisees interpreted this as being a covenant that was given to the Gentile world as opposed to the covenant of Moses.
2  Supersessionism is the belief that the New Covenant (Christianity) nullifies or supersedes the First Covenant (Judaism).
3  (Yes, I am familiar with Scriptures like Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel 38. The question with these has to do with the physical presence of Jesus as the king among us, His ruling over the nations "with an iron scepter" [Psalm 2 and Revelation 2] and the nature of the sacrifices involved.)