First Covenant Application:
The seventh day of the week was set aside as a day of corporate worship and rest from all work, just as God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.
New Covenant Application:
Shabbat holds a threefold meaning in the New Covenant--
1. Literal: as in the First Covenant. This is intended to be the corporate day of worship and rest.
2. Prophetic: Shabbat serves as an overview to the eschatological calendar of Levitical Feasts: six 'days' (feasts) are fulfilled in the work of redemption; when the work is complete (tikkun olam), we will finally enjoy the totality of rest in Shabbat forever with God.
3. Metaphorical: the wholeness and peace (shalom) that we experience in the New Covenant relationship with God is considered the inheritance of Shabbat rest for God's people.
the kingdom of God: the eternal relationship between God and His people. This finds its 'finality' (though it never ends) in the New Jerusalem, and thus its fulfillment is synonymous with Sukkot.
Shabbat (the Sabbath; Shabbos [Ashkenazic])
The Only Weekly Holiday
Overview of Levitical Calendar
Shabbat is the event that defines Jewish practice; some might say it defines Jewish identity. It is the only Levitical Feast also found in the Ten Commandments, and its position in the Ten Commandment list is significant because it is the bridge between showing love for God and showing love for man (the first three commandments are about showing love for God; the last six pertain to treatment of man, but Shabbat is an observance concerning both God and man). Throughout the First Covenant, the neglect of Shabbat was one of God's foremost concerns; the Israelites were judged for this in tandem with idolatry, oppression, dishonesty, and murder. It clearly is a big deal to God.
It has also been the source of a great deal of controversy throughout Christian history. While Jesus and His earliest disciples all celebrated Shabbat, Jesus debated with the Jewish religious leadership over the concept of 'putting a fence' around the Law, stating that they nullified the original intent and in some cases defied the Law due to their traditions, particularly surrounding Shabbat. Similarly, Paul the Apostle, while making it a habit to observe Shabbat each week, admonished New Covenant believers not to judge others based upon traditions found in Shabbat and New Moon observances, but rather by the character qualities of the heart.
Unfortunately, as typically happens in a debate wherever human beings are concerned, the discussions around the topic became polemic: on the one side stood the pro-Jewish covenant observers who followed the strict traditions of the Pharisees; on the other end of the spectrum were the increasing number of Gentile converts and others who viewed Paul's words in particular as a reason to dismiss Jewish observances altogether. Surprisingly, most Christians observed the Jewish Shabbat until the appearance of Constantine 'the Great' became Emperor of Rome in 312 A.D. Constantine attempted to blend Christian and pagan belief systems for the purpose of unifying the Roman Empire; one of the laws he passed is his famous 'Sunday Law', as follows:
"Let all the judges and town people, and the occupation of all trades rest on the Venerable Day of the Sun; but let those who are situated in the country, freely and at full liberty attend to the business of agriculture; because it often happens that no other day is so fit for sowing corn and planting vines; lest, the critical moment being let slip, men should lose the commodities granted by heaven."
Anti-Jewish sentiment sharply rose in the Christian world during Constantine's reign; laws were passed that systematically divorced Christianity from Judaism and replaced the Jewish context with a pagan one. Regarding Shabbat, however, the specific Jewish observance was not forbidden until the Council of Laodicea in 364:
"Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday, but shall work on that day; but the Lord’s Day they shall especially honor, and, as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If, however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ." Catholic [universal] Church Council in Laodicea, 364 A.D., Canon 29.
Imagine that: Christians 'Judaizing' the Sabbath! Who did they think they got the concept from, anyway? So it was that the Sunday was promoted within Christendom as the true Sabbath. The Eastern Orthodox church even changed the order of the days of the week so that Sunday appears at the end rather than Shabbat in order to keep from having to explain to the common folk why they do not worship on the seventh day, as the LORD commanded in Scripture. Interestingly, In 1988, the International Organization of Standards established the Orthodox Week order as the world standard, despite our popular use of the Gregorian calendar; so many countries have now adopted this ISO standard. But Shabbat still remains the day upon which God has set His rest.
Question: I thought that the early Christians met on the first day of the week in honor of Christ's resurrection. Is this untrue?
It is true that very early in Christianity, the people got together on the first day of the week to honor Christ's resurrection. This was not, however a replacement of Shabbat. Christians would worship and rest according to the commandment, and then the following day, they would get together on their own initiative to work for the benefit of the community. It was essentially a day for ministry to the sick, the hungry, and the poor in their community. This was called a love feast.
Love feasts are a good thing, and serve to fill part of our mandate as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We need to be serving the poor, the widow, and the orphan; we are the active agent--the conduit that God uses to touch this world. But our activity cannot replace that necessary piece of rest and fellowship: even Jesus needed to get away from the crowd sometimes. Like Martha, we often busy ourselves with the many tasks ahead of us--even when we have righteous motivation for doing so--but fail to take advantage of the presence of God, like Mary did, simply sitting at His feet, choosing what is better.
One of the stated goals of the Judeo-Christian expression of faith is to restore a proper understanding and practice of Shabbat to the people of God. This involves far more than the changing of the date for corporate worship back to the original Biblically prescribed day; neither is it a return to a list of ritual blessings and prohibitions. It is instead a coming home--a recognition that the presence of God and family is the place where we belong; a letting go of the things that capture our attention to focus instead on matters of eternal importance.
From a prophetic angle, Shabbat has its place as well; it is a panoramic lens looking across the ages, producing a photo that reveals God's redemptive work schedule. It is an overview: there are seven days of the week, with the first six work days building in crescendo to Shabbat--the feast of rest, joy, and shalom peace. Likewise, there are seven annual Levitical Feasts in the calendar, culminating with Sukkot; also a feast of rest, joy, and shalom peace. Each of the first six annual Levitical Feasts has its own 'job'--a day in which God is doing some work in the redemptive process, just as we also work hand in hand with God as His Body to produce fruit for the advancement of His kingdom through the first six days of the week.
The other elements of Shabbat are further telling: the bread and the wine of kiddush are symbols of Jesus' body and blood, just like the Afikomen and the cup of redemption from Passover. When these are all put together, we see a picture showing a long period of redemptive work, followed by rest and peace through the body and blood of Jesus. The writer of the Book of Hebrews expounds on this picture, correlating Shabbat to eternal fellowship with God through Jesus in Hebrews 3:7-5:10.
I would encourage everyone reading these words to take advantage of the provision God made for us in Shabbat. It was made for our benefit (Mark 2:27), and it will change your life!