The Sabbath in Acts: Luke's Record of Paul's Understanding

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The Sabbath in Acts

Luke's Record of Paul's Understanding

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One day while cleaning out old boxes in a closet, I came across a tan-brown book with pictures of seashells on it. Immediately I thought: What is this? It looks familiar. Probably something else I can throw away.

While thumbing through pages and pages of empty horizontal lines, I remembered that this was my one-time attempt to maintain a weekly journal. This noble effort had lasted only a few days.

Perhaps you don't realize it, but you may have in your possession a copy of someone else's journal written some 2,000 years ago. The author sustained this journal project for many years in a book that spans some three decades. Later his work came to be known as the Acts of the Apostles, an official Church history included in the Bible.

This particular book of journal entries begins shortly after the resurrection of Jesus Christ and ends with the apostle Paul's first imprisonment in Rome. This biblical journal is called Acts because it is a record of the acts of the apostles as they carried out Jesus' command to preach the gospel to all nations.

The record-keeper was a physician named Luke who accompanied the apostle Paul on his journeys. Line by line, Luke compiled much of Acts while Paul was experiencing the triumphs and trials of preaching the gospel, the good news, of the Kingdom of God.

Sprinkled throughout Luke's journal are examples of Jewish and gentile Christians participating in a form of worship that many no longer associate with traditional Christianity. This often-overlooked Christian practice is called Sabbath-keeping. Keep in mind as we review Luke's writing that he was a gentile (Colossians 4:10-11, 14), and Paul, though a Jew, was the apostle to the gentiles (Romans 11:13).

Ironically, many think that Paul's writings reject Sabbath observance as a Christian practice. Did Paul uphold the Sabbath throughout the book of Acts but reject it in the books he wrote? Reading the epistles of Paul through the lens of the historical record of Acts can open new horizons of understanding. Let's consider certain passages in Galatians, Romans and Colossians in the light of Luke's perspective.

Days, months, seasons and years

Let's begin our examination of this aspect of the history of the early Church in the book of Galatians, usually recognized as Paul's first epistle. Here many people assume that Paul is chastising the Galatians for Sabbath-keeping: "... How is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years" (Galatians 4:9-10, emphasis added throughout).

But is Paul criticizing Sabbath observance here?

Actually, Paul visited several cities within the region of Galatia (in what is today central Turkey) during his first journey. He wrote this epistle as a follow-up to that journey. Notice what Luke records in Acts 13 concerning this visit:

  • Paul participates in Sabbath services at the local synagogue (verse 14).
  • He notes the practice of reading the Scriptures "every Sabbath" (verse 27).
  • Many gentiles beg Paul to preach to them "the next Sabbath" (verse 42).
  • "On the next Sabbath almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God" from Paul and Barnabas (verse 44).

If one assumes that Galatians 4:9-10 condemns Sabbath-keeping, we must ask why Paul would respect Sabbath-keeping while visiting the Galatian churches, yet, after departing, write a letter reprimanding them for observing these same days? Was Paul hypocritical? Did he change his mind? Was he confused?

The situation in Galatia

A closer look at the context, especially the verses preceding Galatians 4:9-10, will show that Paul was not addressing Sabbath- keeping at all. Many members of these churches had previously been engaged in religions that involved the worship of many false gods. Paul reminded them, "... When you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods" (verse 8). They were instructed not to "turn again" to their idolatrous practices of the past (verse 9).

Therefore, since Sabbath observance was not part of these idolatrous practices, Paul could not have been referring to Sabbath observance here. After all, one cannot turn again to that which he has never observed.

Galatia was part of the Roman Empire, in which observances and practices honoring pagan gods were attached to virtually every day, season, month and year. For instance, the first day of the week was devoted to the sun god. The first month of the year was devoted to Janus, the god of beginnings, from which January is named.

The spring season was devoted to the goddess Cybele and her male partner, Attis, in honor of whom a joyous spring resurrection festival was celebrated. The "days and seasons and months and years" pinpoint idolatrous practices the Galatians had observed when they "did not know God." Paul is not criticizing them for Sabbath-keeping or observing biblical festivals.

On the contrary, we learn from Acts 13 that the Sabbath was a powerful tool used by God to bring gentiles into the truth of the Bible. Verse 43 notes that Paul was followed by Jews and "God-fearing proselytes" (New American Standard Bible).

These devout "God-fearers" were gentiles who had not fully converted to Judaism. Paul preached the gospel "among those Gentiles who, sabbath by sabbath, went out to the Jewish synagogue ... They did not accept circumcision and the obligation to keep the whole Jewish law ... Some of them kept the Sabbath as a day of rest and observed the Jewish food laws. They were known as 'God-fearers'".(F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1953, pp. 93-94, emphasis added). Sabbath-keeping was common among the "God-fearers," many of whom became the nucleus of the gentile churches.

Can you create your own Sabbath?

The book of Romans is often mentioned in discussing the role of the Sabbath in the early Church. Romans 14:5-6 states: "One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it..."

At first glance this passage appears to say that observing the Sabbath, or any day of the week, simply doesn't matter.

Most scholars agree that Paul wrote the book of Romans while visiting the Greek city of Corinth. Does Acts shed any light on Paul's thinking while he was in Corinth?

Luke's journal shows us that Paul, while in Corinth, "reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and persuaded both Jews and Greeks" (Acts 18:1, 4). It is within the context of these actions that Paul wrote the book of Romans. As the book of Acts shows, regardless of what city Paul was in, Sabbath-keeping was his manner, habit or "custom" according to God's commandments (Acts 17:2).

The congregation in Rome included a mix of Jews and gentiles (Romans 1:14; 2:17). Romans 14 deals with food-related circumstances with which Christians were confronted. Personal eating and fasting practices that were not addressed in the Scriptures became a point of contention. For instance, Jews came from a religious background in which some chose to fast "twice a week" (Luke 18:12). Typically, one would not fast on the Sabbath because this was a weekly feast, not fast, day.

Romans 14 also discusses vegetarianism (verses 2-3), which had no biblical connection with Sabbath observance. Verses 5 and 6 are variously interpreted as referring to fasting, as was the Jewish custom, or avoiding meats on some days, as was the custom of some from a gentile, Roman background.

However, the Sabbath is not even mentioned in these verses, nor, for that matter, anywhere in this entire epistle. New Testament writers did not ambiguously cloak the Sabbath in phrases such as "one day."

Paul explains that the issue involved observing "the day" in relation to one's eating habits (verse 6). Those who fasted or abstained from meats on particular days of the week gave thanks to God on those days, and those who ate every day of the week similarly thanked God for their daily bread. Romans 14:5-6 was not written to address Sabbath-keeping at all.

'Therefore let us keep the feast'

The book of Acts also discusses other aspects of Paul's Sabbath-keeping behavior while visiting Ephesus, a gentile city in Asia Minor. He told the Ephesian church, "I must by all means keep this coming feast in Jerusalem; but I will return again to you, God willing" (Acts 18:21).

The Sabbath was a weekly feast, but God also commanded annual feasts-the "holy convocations" recorded in Leviticus 23 and mentioned throughout the Bible.

The Ephesian church was so well acquainted with these annual Sabbaths (feasts, or festivals) that Paul didn't even need to name which one he referred to. Though feast days were also kept outside of Jerusalem, Paul stated that he needed to keep this one in Jerusalem.

Later, after returning to Ephesus, Paul wrote to the primarily gentile church at Corinth, telling the brethren there: "Therefore let us keep the feast ..." (1 Corinthians 5:8). His comments make it clear that he is referring to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, described in Leviticus 23:6-8. As with the Galatians, the Corinthians had at one time been steeped in paganism (1 Corinthians 12:2). Now God's Sabbath, feasts and law were part of their new form of worship.

Paul's visit to Philippi, another gentile city, is recorded in Acts 20. Luke notes that Paul and his companions, including Luke, "sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread" (verse 6). If these feast days had not been observed outside of Jerusalem, there would have been no need to wait for the completion of this feast while in Philippi.

After visiting several other cities over subsequent weeks, Paul "decided to sail past Ephesus ... for he was hurrying to be at Jerusalem, if possible, on the Day of Pentecost" (verse 16). Because of frequent travel while visiting the congregations of Greece and Asia Minor, Paul, as we see in Acts, decides not whether but where to keep the feasts of God.

Let no one judge you?

Paul was under house arrest "in chains" in Rome after his third journey when he wrote to the Colossians (Colossians 4:3). While sailing to Rome, he warned others on the boat against sailing this late in the year, since "the Fast was already over" (Acts 27:9). The "Fast" was a term for the Day of Atonement, another of the annual sabbaths appointed by God, which was observed by fasting, rest and worship (Leviticus 23:26-32).

Yet some conclude that, after this voyage, Paul rejected Sabbath and festival observances in his letter to the Colossians when he stated, "So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come ..." (Colossians 2:16-17).

Is it Paul's intention here to denigrate observing God's festivals and sabbaths? Many think so while failing to recognize that, if this statement rejects the Sabbaths, then it also rejects eating and drinking, mentioned here in the same context.

Understanding the historical background helps us grasp Paul's intent. This book was written to the "saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse" (Colossians 1:2) to combat heresy that was creeping into the church. Promoters of this heresy took an ascetic approach, criticizing and condemning anything pleasurable.

Their extremism was reflected in their criticism of the Colossian members who enjoyed the Sabbaths and festivals in the festive, joyous spirit God intended (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14-15). Paul told the Colossians not to let others judge them in "food and drink" -literally "eating and drinking" on these days-which ran counter to the self-denial and asceticism advocated by these heretical teachers.

Such practices, Paul said, were "according to the tradition of men ... and not according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8). The phrase "tradition of men" is used only in Colossians 2:8 and Mark 7:8. Many years earlier Christ had told the Pharisees: "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men ... All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition" (Mark 7:8-9). Now it was Paul's turn to confront those who imposed their man-made traditions as though they were "commandments of God."

The Colossian heresy also involved the "worship of angels" (Colossians 2:18) according to the "commandments and doctrines of men," including "self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body" (verses 22-23). The New Testament History describes this group as an "angel-cult of nonconformist Jewish foundation and pagan superstructure" (F.F. Bruce, Doubleday-Galilee, New York, 1980, pp. 415-416).

God forbids worship of angels or veneration of anything or anyone other than Him (Exodus 20:3-6). Church doctrines are to be established by the commandments of God, not "the tradition of men." The feast days are a shadow of wonderful things to come, not just earlier historical events, as some suppose.

When we come to fully understand the meaning of these days, we recognize that they portray what God has done, is doing and ultimately will do for all mankind. We see, then, that Paul's instruction in Colossians 2:16-17 was that members of God's Church should not allow others to judge them in these areas.

The Sabbath was made for you

Even the few completed pages of my journal contained details I had forgotten concerning what was going on in my mind and life at the time I penned those pages. Likewise, Luke's journal contains many reminders of the actions of Christians during the first 30 years of the Church.

God established His Church when He poured out His Spirit on Christ's followers who were observing the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2. Throughout the ensuing years of the Church as recorded in Luke's journal, with its share of ups and downs, we see that one thing remained constant: observance of God's weekly Sabbaths and annual festivals.

God has graciously shared Luke's journal with all who are willing to read it. This journal should never be forgotten, nor should the lessons it contains be disregarded. Acts confirms the words of Jesus Christ: "The Sabbath was made for man ..." (Mark 2:27). It truly records the acts of the apostles-as they observed God's Sabbaths and festivals. GN