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Are All Things Truly Lawful?

Did Paul write that all things are lawful for Christians?

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful.

“All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.

Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.

But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.

1 Corinthians 10:23-33

As with every line written in every personal letter, context is key to understanding the author’s intent. Paul’s main point in this passage didn’t begin in verse 23, but in chapter 8, verse 1: “Now concerning food offered to idols…” The full conversation didn’t begin even there, but in a previous letter written to Paul by the believers at Corinth, a letter that has been entirely lost to history. 

From 1 Corinthians 8:1, we know that Paul was responding to a question about eating the meat of animals that had been sacrificed to idols on pagan altars. He told them that offering a sacrifice to a pagan deity does nothing at all to change the nature of the meat itself, so long as you aren’t actually participating in the sacrificial rite. Even eating the meat in the pagan temple, doesn’t itself make the eating sinful if you are only eating meat with no regard to the location, the false god, or the ritual.

Eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol becomes a problem in three circumstances:

  1. Are you participating in the pagan celebration or rituals for which the animal was sacrificed? Eating the sacrifice is an intrinsic part of worship, so if you are participating in a pagan ritual, you are engaging in idolatry, which God most definitely does not appreciate.
  2. Could an observer mistake your eating for idolatry? If so, you shouldn’t eat it because you don’t want to mislead them to think that idolatry is allowed or that you are a hypocrite in what you profess to believe.
  3. Does eating the meat bother your conscience? If you feel guilty in the eating or if you are tempted to go just one step closer to idolatry, then you should stay away from it.

In chapter 10, Paul made the argument that eating the meat might be perfectly lawful, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. When you’re in gray areas like this, in which specific circumstances can make all the difference, you should tread lightly.

What he does not say is that any of God’s commandments have been canceled or that we are free to ignore them when we feel like it.

Most modern translators seem to believe that “All things are lawful” in verse 23 is a hypothetical quote of his audience. Paul posited that someone at Corinth might say “All things are lawful” and the text that immediately follows is Paul’s response. In other words, Paul probably didn’t even intend for anyone to think that he was stating that “all things are lawful”.

However, even if we take those phrases as Paul’s own words, we need to interpret them in the context in which he was writing. He certainly didn’t mean for us to think that all sexual immorality and idolatry are lawful, because he wrote “we must not indulge in sexual immorality” and “flee from idolatry” just a few verses earlier in the same chapter.

We can’t extend “all things” to eating pork and people unless we also extend it to eating blood and engaging in sexual immorality. Yet, even if Paul hadn’t addressed those things already, in Acts 15:20 James clearly says that eating meat sacrificed to idols (participating in the idolatry), eating blood, and sexual immorality are the most basic of all moral standards. These are the very first rules that a new convert from a pagan religion to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) needs to adopt in order to fellowship with other believers, but they are not the entirety of godly living.

The context is idolatry, not clean and unclean animals. Even his statement about sexual immorality is about pagan temple prostitution and sexual acts as worship. If we allow the text to define itself, then we can’t reasonably conclude that Paul said anything except that eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols is not strictly a sin as long as we aren’t participating in the idolatry.

Neither James nor Paul taught that “eating all things of all kinds is lawful”. Rather, they taught that as followers of the Messiah, we need to make wise and biblically informed distinctions between clean and unclean and between prudent and imprudent.


Is the Law Impossible to Keep?

Is God's Law (Torah) a yoke that neither our fathers nor we are able to bear?

When Peter asked the Pharisees, “Why do you tempt God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples, a yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” in Acts 15:10, he was not talking about God’s instructions as given by Moses. He was talking about the traditions and the rules which the rabbis had built up around the written Torah.

Moses told the Israelites,

The secret things belong to YHWH our God, but the revealed things belong to us and to our sons forever, so that we may do all the words of this Law….For this commandment which I command you today is not hidden from you, neither is it far off. It is not in Heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to Heaven, and bring it to us, so that we may hear it and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us to the region beyond the sea, and bring it to us, so that we may hear it and do it? But the Word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, so that you may do it. Behold! I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil, in that I command you today to love YHWH your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, so that you may live and multiply. And YHWH your God shall bless you in the land where you go to possess it.

Deuteronomy 29:29,30:11-16

Peter did not call Moses a liar and neither did Paul or Yeshua. It is not too hard for us to keep God’s commandments.

Most of the Torah is very simple. It can be summed up in ten statements or even in only two. Leviticus 19 (the beginning of the Torah portion called Kedoshim, or holy ones) begins with another summary of the law: Be holy for I am holy. “Holy” means separate or different. Moses followed that summary with another summary:

  • Be respectful of your parents.
  • Do not employ idols.
  • Express your gratitude. Don’t fake it. Don’t make a show of it.
  • Leave a little extra for the poor and the traveler.
  • Don’t steal, cheat, or lie.
  • Don’t take unfair advantage of others.
  • Don’t punish the rich for being rich.
  • Don’t gossip.
  • Don’t retaliate, and don’t hold a grudge.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

These rules aren’t entirely unique to the Torah. Except for the part about idols, they are pretty standard religious fare. (As far as I know, only the Abrahamic religious traditions prohibit the making and use of idols.) Other than the rules themselves, there are two vitally important things to understand about being kedoshim to God.

  1. God doesn’t care all that much about ritual or prayer or self denial. All those things have their place, but what’s really important is love. Not feelings, but real, active love.
  2. It isn’t the content of our rules that separates us from the world; it is their source and our obedience to them.

We know from Ecclesiastes 7:20, Romans 3:23, and 1 John 1:8 that nobody except Yeshua ever managed to live a sinless life. Eventually, everyone gossips. Everyone lies. Everyone steals. Everyone hates. So what did Moses mean when he said that God’s commandments are not too hard for us to keep?

He meant at least three things:

  1. God’s instructions aren’t difficult to understand. You don’t need a theology degree to implement them. They require wisdom to apply, but the words and meaning are simple enough for iron age shepherds and farmers.
  2. God’s instructions aren’t onerous or oppressive. He didn’t give them to punish anyone or to make anyone’s life more difficult. They are the basic owner’s manual for human life and society, and those who live by them will live more joyful and fulfilling lives.
  3. Even though we aren’t capable–as mere humans–of keeping the Law perfectly, we are still capable of keeping it as a consistent lifestyle. Remedies for failure are built into the Law itself, so keeping it doesn’t have to mean never failing in any point. Remember that not every commandment applies to every person, and I am NOT talking about keeping the Law to earn salvation. I am only talking about keeping it to honor God.

The “yoke which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear” is not God’s Law, also known as the written Torah. God’s Law teaches us what it means to sin and also what it means to love, for all of the Law is fulfilled in these two commandments: Love YHVH your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

If you keep the two greatest commandments, then you keep all of the Torah, and if you keep the Torah as God intended it to be kept, then you also keep the two greatest commandments. They are, after all, direct quotes from the Torah.

How to Keep the Sabbath

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Exodus 20:8-11

God had a lot to say about the Sabbath in the Bible, and I don’t think God wastes words. If we take the Bible seriously, we can’t deny that the Sabbath is important. He said “Do it because I did it. Do it because it’s a sign of the covenant between you and Me. Do it because you were a slave and those who work for you deserve a day off too. Do it because it honors me. Do it because it’s my day, and I want you to.”

Work six days. Take the seventh day off. That sounds easy enough. It’s a single day of rest each week, from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. How hard can that be?

Pretty hard, as it turns out.

We thank God for Fridays as we leave the office on the last work day of the week. We kick back, spend some time with family and friends, maybe watch a little television…and then we go back to work on Saturday morning.

That grass won’t cut itself, after all. The car won’t fix itself. The windows need washing, the bills need paying, and you’ve got a pile of papers leftover from the office to sort through. Who’s got time to take a day off?

You do.

In fact, you can’t afford not to take the seventh day off, and let me tell you why.

The Sabbath belongs to God, and he commanded us to keep it. However, Yeshua said that the Sabbath was made for us. Does God need to rest? Probably not, yet he rested on the seventh day of creation as an example for us. Like sleep, friendship, and love, rest from labor is an essential ingredient to human fulfillment.

Seven is the number of completion, and we can’t be complete without the seventh day Sabbath. We can never fully realize all of the good that God has for us without it.

Earlier, I wrote about how we can know that the day we call “Saturday” now, the seventh day of the week, is the real Sabbath. Once you see the facts laid out, that part’s not so difficult. Keeping the Sabbath the way God intended is something else entirely.

Part 1: Why is it so hard to keep the Sabbath?

I think there are three reasons it can be hard to keep the weekly Sabbath.

First, some people just hate God and everything he does. They want to do everything God said not to do, and nothing that he commanded. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably not one of them, so I’m not going to spend any more time on that.

Second, it really is difficult to break the momentum of life. Everything has to change on this one day. Did you drive a truck all week? Crunch numbers? Make nice with frustrated retail customers? Full stop. On the Sabbath you don’t do that. That kind of shift requires deliberate effort and some major habit changes.

I’m probably not the best person to help you make a change in mindset or habits, but there are many out there who are expert at it. A supportive family and community will probably be more helpful to you in this respect than anything else.

Third, most people simply don’t know how to keep the Sabbath. There are bad teachers and false teachers. There are things we’ve heard and things we’re just “sure” the Bible says, but can’t remember where.

What does it mean not to do any work? What about cooking? Maybe you’ve heard that you’re not supposed to turn a light switch on. What if you’re on call or you work in a hospital? Isn’t this all just for the Jews anyway?

Should We Just Keep the Sabbath Like the Jews Do?

There are a lot of traditions about how to keep the Sabbath. The rabbis have spent thousands of years accumulating rules about what you can’t do and how much of what you are allowed. Even in Yeshua’s day, the multitude of rules had become overbearing. An Orthodox Jewish rabbi can spend years studying the laws of Shabbat, and still not learn everything there is to know about it.

It seems to me that if your day of rest is more burdensome than a regular work day, you must be doing something wrong.

I don’t mean to totally dismiss rabbinical learning regarding the Sabbath. They are the heirs of more than 3000 years of learning, practice, and tradition regarding God’s Law. While I believe they have gone overboard in many respects, they have put an enormous amount of consideration into the matter, and their teaching is often profound in its depth and elegance. It shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

But it’s easy to get lost in the complexity and to lose the distinction between commandment and tradition, and some of it really is just nuts. We have families, communities, and businesses to run. Very few of us have years to invest in mastering a set of religious rules whose connection to God’s commandments is tenuous.

Ninety percent of tradition regarding the Sabbath probably isn’t relevant to your life and a significant portion of the rest is nonsense. I don’t want you to give up because you the essential truth is buried beneath centuries of extraneous tradition.

How Are We Supposed to Keep the Sabbath?

In preparing for this article, I searched the scriptures for every reference to the Sabbath and did my best to distill it all down to what really matters. Unfortunately, I am going to have to discuss some do’s and don’t’s. God was very clear that some things aren’t allowed and that some other things are required. There’s no way around that.

I have organized the Biblical Sabbath injunctions into three categories:

  1. Positive commandments: Are we supposed to go to church? Take the day off? Sit silently all day?
  2. Negative commandments: What constitutes work? Are we allowed to cook? Use a computer? Light a fire?
  3. Gray areas: Is it OK to drive to church or synagogue? What if we’re away from home and we’re hungry? What about people who have to work on Saturdays?

That third category is necessary because God doesn’t spell everything out for us. He expects us to think carefully about his Law and to work out the ambiguities in our communities, families, and consciences. I believe that’s part of his plan for building character in his people. I’ll try to point you in the right direction, but you’re going to have to make some decisions for yourself.


Part 2: The Positive Commandments

When we think about the weekly Sabbath, we usually think about what we are not allowed to do: don’t work, don’t kindle fires, don’t buy and sell, etc., but God also had a lot to say about what we are required to do on the Sabbath.

In this email, I have listed the positive Sabbath commandments with scriptural references for each, as well as discussing what each one means for us today.

Keep the Sabbath holy

(Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8, 31:14, 35:2; Deuteronomy 5:12; Isaiah 56:2, 58:13-14; Jeremiah 17:19-27; Ezekiel 20:11-24, 22:8, 23:38, 44:24-25, 46:1-3)

God said to “keep my Sabbath’s holy” so many times that its importance to him cannot be overstated. We must keep the weekly Sabbath separate (the literal meaning of “holy”) from other days.

Paul’s discussion about days in Romans 14:5-6 is about whether it’s better to fast on one day or another, and not about keeping the Sabbath. Likewise, his discussion of holidays in Colossians 2:16 is about man-made rules, not about God’s commandments.

The Sabbath is sacred, and no one is authorized to change that. It must be kept sacred primarily by two methods.

First, we sanctify the Sabbath by very deliberately moving the focus of our attention away from our own needs and labors to the needs of God and, by extension to the needs of his creatures, especially those who were also made in his image. We stop thinking about paying bills and making deals, and instead we think about our relationship with our Creator, as well as with our neighbors.

Second, we follow God’s instructions as outlined in the rest of this article. On every other day of the week, we may work, play, and conduct our lives in almost any manner we choose, but this day is different. On the Sabbath, we stop doing all of those other things, and instead we study the Scriptures, pray, fellowship, and ease one another’s burdens.

Keep the Sabbath for God’s sake

(Leviticus 19:30, 26:2; Numbers 15:30-36; Nehemiah 9:14; Isaiah 58:13-14, 66:23; Ezekiel 20:11-24, 23:38)

The Sabbath was made for man (Matthew 12:11-3; Mark 2:27-28; Luke 6:5), but that doesn’t mean God gets no benefit from it. Like any good parent, he wants us to do those things which are best for us, and he wants to have a close relationship with us. The Sabbath enhances both. It’s important to God that we keep it, therefore we keep it not only for our sake, but for his.

Assemble on the Sabbath

(Leviticus 23:1-3)

There is only one explicit command to assemble on the Sabbath, and it is a general command for all of God’s appointed times:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places…
Leviticus 23:1-3

Although this instruction is only given once, it is exemplified by the actions of the prophets and apostles throughout Scripture, and by related prophecies in Isaiah and Ezekiel.

In Isaiah 66:23 and Ezekiel 46:1-3, God said that all people and the people of Israel, respectively, will one day gather to worship him on the days of the new moon and the weekly Sabbath.

In 2 Kings 4:23, a conversation between a woman and her husband hints that it was common practice to gather for teaching on the weekly Sabbath, and 2 Kings 16:18 talks about a covered walkway constructed at the Temple for the king’s private use on the Sabbath, indicating that the weekly gatherings were important enough that the king made a point of attending.

Yeshua made a lifelong habit of attending the local synagogue for Torah readings and teachings every Sabbath. (See Matthew 12:9; Mark 1:21, 3:1, 6:2; Luke 4:16-30, 4:31-37, 6:6-10, 13:10.) Paul also attended synagogue every Sabbath. (See Acts 13, 15:21, 16:13, 17:1-3, 18:4.)

There’s nothing wrong with gathering for worship on any other day of the week, so long as we don’t neglect gathering on the seventh day Sabbath.

Relieve suffering

There is no direct command to relieve the suffering of others on the Sabbath, but there are commands to relieve the suffering of others in general. Most notably, Leviticus 19:18 says to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and this obligation doesn’t stop on the Sabbath. This was a continual point of conflict between Yeshua and the Jewish religious experts of his day.

When the Master and his disciples were passing through a grain field, the disciples plucked heads of grain and ate as they walked. Not only did Yeshua not rebuke them, but he defended their actions. They weren’t harvesting by any normal standards. They had no blades or bags. It can’t even be said that they were gleaning as the poor were allowed to do behind the regular harvesters. They were homeless and hungry, so they ate. To refuse them would have been needlessly harsh and would have created the added burden of hunger to their journey. (See Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5.)

On numerous other occasions, Yeshua made a point of healing the sick, handicapped, and oppressed on the Sabbath. Although the Pharisees and Sadducees objected, he pointed out that they rightly have no objection to performing circumcisions on the Sabbath, and none of them would hesitate to rescue an animal from a ditch on the Sabbath. How much greater is it to relieve the sick from their oppressive burdens? Healing is not only allowed on the Sabbath, it is an even greater good than otherwise, as it allows more people to rest and no payment can be asked in return. (See Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 1:23-28, 1:30-31, 3:2-5; Luke 4:31-39, 6:6-10, 13:10-17, 14:1-6; John 5:1-17, 7:22-24, 9:1-16.)

Perform essential Temple & Covenantal duties

(Leviticus 24:1-9; Numbers 28:9-10; 2 Kings 11:5-9; 1 Chronicles 9:32, 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4, 8:12-13, 23:1-11, 31:2-3; Ezekiel 46:1-3; Matthew 12:5-6; John 7:21-24)

There is no Temple, so the instructions for Sabbath sacrifices don’t apply to us directly, but we can learn from them by example. The essential functions of the Temple and Covenant included sacrifices, replacing the Bread of the Presence, performing circumcisions, and rotating the contingents of guards and priests on duty. The common factor among all of these activities is ensuring the ability of other people to keep the Sabbath.

Equivalent activities today (and probably in the first century as well) include preparing our meeting places, providing security in various ways, conducting religious services, etc. All of these things can involve burdensome labor, but they must be done to some extent if people are to be able to gather for worship as the commandments require.

Note that the guards and priests serving at the Temple were rotated from one week to the next. This ensured that nobody would have to work every Sabbath, and I think that’s a good practice to follow whenever possible, especially if you are in a position to set schedules for other people. Also remember that a good leader doesn’t require his people to do what he is unwilling to do himself. If you must assign others to work on the Sabbath for some reason, you should put yourself in the rotation with them.

Keep even essential work on the Sabbath to a minimum and spread the load whenever possible.

Rest

(Exodus 31:15, 34:21, 35:2; Leviticus 23:3; Luke 23:56)

Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.
Exodus 34:21

The Hebrew for “rest” in this and other verses about the Sabbath is “Shabat”, which, according to Brown-Driver-Briggs literally means to stop. It means that, whatever you normally do to earn your living on other days, you will stop doing it on this day. The added “in plowing and harvest” means that considerations of business or harvest conditions are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter to God whether Saturday is your busiest, most lucrative day of the week. He said to stop and rest. Even if it is the first day in weeks that the fields have been dry enough to plow or harvest, you will rest on the Sabbath rather than work. Sometimes God sends a break in the storm so that you will have a greater opportunity to exercise your faith in him.

You will take a day off from work. You will relax. You will contemplate the goodness of God manifested through his Creation, rather than working to tame or manipulate the Creation through your own efforts.

The Sabbath is not a day to prepare for your old age or to worry about bills and groceries. It takes an effort to set those things aside, but this is a command of God. You will enjoy what he has given you, no matter how great or meager, and you will spend time in his presence, trusting in his Providence rather than worrying about your own.

A Positive Sabbath

As you can see, the Sabbath is intended to be a positive experience, an opportunity to refresh ourselves and our relationships with God and our community. While the shift in habits and attitude can be difficult, it isn’t a burden. In the long run, the Sabbath enhances our lives not only by taking away our labors, but by adding gratitude and joy.

The Sabbath was made for man, after all, not man for the Sabbath.


Part 3: The Negative Commandments

Sabbath Day taboos were a frequent point of conflict between Yeshua and the Jewish religious leaders of the first century. The Sadducees and Pharisees placed severe restrictions on what a person could and couldn’t do on the weekly Sabbath, what he could carry, how far he could walk, etc. Yeshua, on the other hand, said that these rules were themselves a violation of the Sabbath because of the heavy burden they placed on people.

The Judeo-Christian world has fragmented since then into a thousand different interpretations of the Sabbath, how to keep it, and whether we ought to keep it at all. One person will refuse to work at his job, but he will pay someone else to work at theirs. One person goes to church, while another won’t leave his house. One person won’t push a button or turn on a light, while another person says the Sabbath is obsolete and we should treat all days exactly alike.

The Jewish rabbis have continued to add volumes of restrictions to Sabbath, so many in fact, that they long ago had to organize them into thirty-nine types which can be grouped under six general headings: field work, making cloth curtains, making leather curtains, making the beams of the Tabernacle, assembling and disassembling the Tabernacle, and inaugurating the Tabernacle.

Why do curtains get two headings? And how does carrying a bed roll or long distance walking fit into this scheme?

Despite initial appearances, those six categories do make a sort of sense when you examine the reasoning behind them, but in my opinion, they have over-thought the issue into absurdity. If you ever find yourself seriously wondering whether pushing a wheelchair through a patch of dirt might be a violation of the Sabbath because the resulting ruts look suspiciously like furrows plowed in a field…then I think you have missed the point of the Sabbath.

I don’t believe that God has canceled the Sabbath that he instituted in the very first week of Creation, but I also believe that it shouldn’t be so complicated to keep that a person can spend months or years mastering the details. God gave us a day off from our concerns, not a day of agonizing over the minutia of daily life.

Unfortunately, since there is widespread disagreement over what is and is not acceptable on the Sabbath, we still have to talk about it. Most importantly, we must continually return to the Scriptures, God’s instruction manual for life, to remind ourselves what God actually said.

In preparing for this series, I compiled a list of Sabbath-related scriptures, which you can view here: Bible Passages about the Weekly Sabbath. I encourage you to read and study them yourself, and if you find that I am missing anything, please let me know in the comments on that blog post.

Rather than dividing up the negative commandments of Sabbath into thirty-nine categories or even six, I think they can be reduced to seven simple restrictions and summarized in two statements. I am confident that every capable adult can understand these rules and interpret them for their own lives and circumstances.

Let’s take the seven restrictions first.

The Sabbath’s Seven Restrictions

1. Do not gather manna

…Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none….The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.
Exodus 16:1-30

When God gave the Hebrews manna in the Wilderness, he instructed them to gather it for six days only, gathering twice as much on the sixth day, and none at all on the seventh. If anyone gathered extra on the other days, it rotted before morning, but the extra manna gathered on the sixth day would remain fresh and edible through the seventh. No manna fell at all on the seventh day, so anyone who disobeyed and went out to gather manna on the Sabbath came back empty-handed. Anyone who didn’t gather extra on the sixth day because they expected it to rot before morning as on other days would go hungry on the seventh.

The manna stopped when Israel entered the Promised Land, so this command no longer applies to us directly, but God was teaching eternal principles to them that we can still learn from in any age. The main principle is this: Obey God even when it doesn’t make sense. God does not make arbitrary rules. Every single statute and precept was given for our benefit. Trust him.

We might think that we will lose economic advantage if we close our shops and offices on the Sabbath, but it’s a lie. God provides for his faithful and rewards their obedience. Those rewards might not be in the form or in the time that we would prefer, but if we trust his judgment, they will always be in the form and time that is best suited to our needs.

2. Let no one go out of his place

See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.
Exodus 16:29

Although this command is actually part of the instructions for not gathering manna on the seventh day, I include it as a separate restriction because it is often understood as a general command not to travel more than a certain distance from one’s home. Through some convoluted eisegesis, the rabbis variously set this distance at 2000 cubits, 4000 cubits, or 8000 cubits (.5 to 1.5 miles), depending on the rabbi, the century in which the rabbi lived, and the circumstances of the person in question. A person who lived in a city might be allowed to travel a little further than someone who lived in a small village, and even further if his destination was in the countryside on the opposite side of the city.

However, the command was given within the context of gathering manna, and I don’t believe it was intended to apply to all travel, let alone to set a specific distance that one may “go out of his place”, when it plainly says that each person is not to leave his own place, not the collective “place” of the whole wilderness camp.

The Hebrews didn’t have to walk very far, let alone 2000 cubits, to gather a few liters of manna. It fell on the ground everywhere. They only had to step outside their sukkot (tents) and collect it from the ground right at their feet. If the intended meaning was “Don’t go outside to collect manna”–and it seems quite clear that it was–then it must mean not to step foot outside at all.

But it doesn’t mean that either, at least not in a general sense. “Remain each of you in his place” was given in the context of gathering the manna which stopped falling more than three thousand years ago. It wasn’t a command not to leave one’s sukkah (tent) for any reason at all, but not to go out to collect manna.

The command is about going out to find sustenance, not about going outside your house. In other words, don’t harvest, don’t collect rent, don’t accept payments, but by all means, go out to visit with your neighbor. Gather for worship. In fact, we are commanded to gather for worship on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3), which cannot be done without leaving our homes.

On the other hand, I’m also not saying that one should plan a journey on the Sabbath…but more on that later.

3. Do not work during plowing or harvest time

Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.
Exodus 34:21

Whether Old Testament or New, prophets or epistles, all of Scripture was written in the context of agrarian cultures. From behind our computer screens and air conditioned houses, it is easy to forget that, until the 20th century, almost everyone in the world worked in only four industries–farming, herding, fishing, and war–frequently in two or more of them at the same time. There were many other industries, of course, but those who made their living through masonry, carpentry, shipping, etc. were relatively few, and nobody at all worked in electronics.

In ancient Israel, everything revolved around the agricultural cycle. The Biblical feast days, invasions, migrations, trade routes…nearly anything you could think of was profoundly affected by plowing, planting, and harvesting. “In plowing time and in harvest” is a statement very similar to “the alpha and the omega”. It refers to the beginning and the end and everything in between.

So when the Torah says, “In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest,” it means that, no matter what you are doing, whether you work directly in agriculture or not, no matter what season of the year it is, you will rest on the seventh day of the week and refrain from your normal work. Every kind of work that a person might do to feed, clothe, and house himself, must cease on the Sabbath.

4. Do not do physical or menial labor

Six days you shall work (abad), but on the seventh day you shall rest….
Exodus 34:21

Six days you shall labor (abad) and do all your work…
Deuteronomy 5:13

See also: Matthew 24:20, Luke 13:16, Luke 23:54-56.

There are two Hebrew words commonly translated as work or labor in the Torah: abad and melakah. Abad refers to the kind of work which is frequently done by servants and hired laborers.

Obvious examples include harvesting, landscaping, plumbing, manufacturing, and house cleaning. Any task that you might hire someone else to do for you because it is demanding, dirty, unpleasant, etc., could be called “abad“, and we are not to do those things on the Sabbath.

Less obvious examples include arduous travel and bearing emotional and spiritual burdens or placing them on others. This is why Yeshua told the residents of Jerusalem to pray that they wouldn’t have to flee the city on the Sabbath (Matthew 24:20). A strict adherence to the command would require that they leave behind all of their possessions and not move harder and faster than they absolutely must to preserve their lives.

It is also why Yeshua frequently healed and delivered the oppressed on the Sabbath. If God does not want us to burden ourselves on this day, how much more must he approve of releasing others from their burdens, especially when it costs us nothing but a blessing or a prayer?

5. Do not transact business or engage in your occupation

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work (melakah), but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work (melakah), you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.
Exodus 20:9-10

See also: Exodus 31:14-15, Exodus 35:2, Leviticus 23:3, Deuteronomy 5:13-15, Nehemiah 10:31, Nehemiah 13:15-22, Isaiah 58:13-14, Matthew 28:1, Mark 15:42-47, Mark 16:1.

The second Hebrew word that is commonly translated as work in the Torah is melakah, and it refers to commercial activity or a person’s occupation. Melakah is anything that a person might do to earn a living or to obtain greater wealth, and isn’t restricted to only laborious work.

The most obvious characteristic that distinguishes business from other activities is the element of trade. If the activity involves trading goods or services, including all of those tasks which are necessary to prepare and support the trade, such as accounting, marketing, and public relations, then it is forbidden on the Sabbath.

Not only are we not to engage in business ourselves, but–according to Nehemiah–we are not to patronize those who do. See Nehemiah 10:31,13:15-22.

6. Do not prepare for business

Six days work (melakah) shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.
Exodus 35:2-3

See also: Numbers 15:30-36, Isaiah 58:13-14.

The command not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath is usually understood to mean “don’t light a fire on the Sabbath”, and–depending on who you ask–might be applied to lighting candles, starting a car, or starting a gas stove.

I have titled this section “Do not prepare for business” instead of “Do not kindle a fire” because, as I examined all of the Sabbath-related Bible passages, I became convinced that the command was not about kindling any and all fires, but kindling fires in a specific context.

Moses didn’t arbitrarily tag an unrelated specific instruction (verse 3) on to the end of a general command (verse 2), but rather as a directly-related clarification. Let me rephrase the passage to better illustrate what I mean.

You have six days in the week to engage in your chosen occupation, but the seventh day is reserved as a solemn rest, set apart for God’s purposes alone. Whoever does business on the seventh day shall be put to death. Do not use the Sabbath to prepare for resuming your occupation after the sun sets, not even so much as kindling a fire.

Or to put it more succinctly…

Conduct business on six days of the week, but don’t even think about it on the seventh day. Don’t even think about thinking about it.

In the ancient world, almost every occupation required the kindling of fires for one reason or another. A smith must have a fire, of course, but farmers, carpenters, fishermen, and scribes also use fire in their businesses.

The intent of the command in Exodus 35:3 is to keep our minds on the Sabbath so long as the Sabbath lasts. We are not to use that time for planning and preparing to “hit the ground running” as soon as the sun sets. Although the Sabbath was created for man’s benefit, the entire day belongs to God.

It doesn’t seem like work to turn the home office computer on and write out a to-do list for after sunset, but to do so on the Sabbath is to rob God of time that he has set apart for our restoration. Resting from all our mundane cares on the Sabbath pleases God. It makes him happy. To use his day to get a jump start on the worries of the rest of the week is to rob him of that pleasure.

If the house is cold, I think it’s okay to light a fire in the fire place or to heat up some hot cocoa on the stove, but let the work week take care of itself. Don’t watch for the sunset, anxious to review that presentation, to fill that order, or to do whatever else it is that you do for a living.

Relax and enjoy the day off. Rest while you can. You know that you don’t get enough during the week.

7. Do not allow your family, servants, hirelings, guests, or animals to work

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Deuteronomy 5:13-15

See also: Exodus 31:14, Nehemiah 10:31, Nehemiah 13:15-22, Luke 13:15, Colossians 2:16-19

God rewards obedience. His rewards aren’t always monetary or even tangible, but they are real all the same. Keeping the Sabbath is no different from other commandments. If we keep it, we will be rewarded. The Sabbath is a blessing.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is also a commandment, and it is superior to all commandments that you might keep in order to gain rewards for yourself. In fact, it is such an important commandment, that Yeshua ranked it as the second most important of all, right after the command to hear, obey, and love God.

It is more important to love your neighbor than to keep the Sabbath.

I will go even further and say that, if you don’t love your neighbor then you cannot keep the Sabbath, because Sabbath-keeping requires you to give your family, your employees, and even your animals the day off too. If you don’t do that, you might as well just go back to the office yourself.

We are commanded to see that those under our authority keep the Sabbath.

But don’t be too zealous about it. Don’t put unnecessary burdens on people through extra-biblical regulations that might cause more stress and turn the day into yet another onerous chore. Be understanding and consider that other people won’t always agree with your interpretation and application of God’s instructions. Sometimes they’re right.

In modern America, we don’t own slaves, and we can’t order our employees to follow God’s instructions on their own time, but we can make sure that we aren’t living or doing business in such a way that we require–or even encourage–others to break the Sabbath. We can close our offices. We can ask landscapers, housekeeping, and others to schedule their visits on other days. We can eat at home instead of going to a restaurant. There are a thousand little ways we can change our lifestyles to help others keep the Sabbath.

Even if the people who labor on our behalf don’t want to keep the Sabbath and will bus someone else’s table if we don’t go to their restaurant, at least we will know that we didn’t contribute to their actions. We didn’t encourage, bribe, or extort them into working on the one day that God set apart just for their benefit.

However, this restriction introduces some interesting conflicts that might require us to do some work on the Sabbath that we wouldn’t otherwise.

If you have animals that require food, water, or shelter, then take care of them even on the Sabbath. If you don’t, you will be placing a burden on them that they wouldn’t have on another day, turning their rest into labor.

Do you have guests in your home on the Sabbath? Don’t make them uncomfortable by refusing to serve them and making them fend for themselves in your kitchen and bathroom, especially if they are unaccustomed to keeping the Sabbath in their own home. It doesn’t take much work to change sheets, fetch towels, make tea, and so on. Don’t expect them to know or understand or even accept your traditions. Just be a good host. Love your visitors and be grateful that they have chosen to visit you. They have given you an opportunity to perform a good deed by unburdening them on the Sabbath, so take advantage of it.

Two Summaries of the Seven Restrictions

Keeping the Sabbath shouldn’t be complicated

Don’t labor. Don’t do business. Don’t make other people work. Don’t put burdens on others.

The seven restrictions I discussed above are pretty straightforward, but let me simplify them even more with two summarizing statements.

Statement One: Do not provide or arrange for the future or ongoing physical needs of yourself or others.

Whether it’s gathering manna or trading stocks on Wall Street, the Sabbath is not for providing for the mundane needs of tomorrow. The seventh day is about spiritual needs. Remove the burdens of care and labor for just this one day and focus on rest, restoration, and being in unity with your community and especially with your Creator.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Matthew 6:25

And that goes doubly for the Sabbath.

Statement Two: Do not place burdens on yourself or others.

Labor takes more forms than just working with your hands. There are burdens of the mind and spirit that weigh more heavily than any bag of cement mix.

Do that which brings you joy. Don’t do that which causes you distress.

Maybe working in the vegetable garden isn’t appropriate on the Sabbath, but if getting your hands a little dirty brings you peace and facilitates fellowship with Yahweh, then plant some flowers during the week that you can care for on the Sabbath. I wouldn’t turn over a new bed, but a little pruning and weeding doesn’t seem to me like much of a burden, and unless you’re a florist or horticulturist, it’s hard to call that doing business.

Remember that no one bears the same burden in the same way. What seems easy to you might be crushing to someone else. Be sensitive of the needs of others. Don’t put them in a position to have to work at their occupation on the Sabbath, but also be careful of putting them under burdens which are less physically tangible. Be kind and considerate. Be cautious with your words and sparing with discipline, scolding, and condemnation.

The seventh day Sabbath is a sign by which God’s people are to remember that they are his (Exodus 31:13), and the Sabbath is characterized, more than anything else, by the loosening of burdens and cares.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-30

What sort of god gives his people a yoke of slavery and impossible rules as a special sign of their relationship to him? Not mine.

On the contrary, the Sabbath is a blessing and a sign that our God truly loves us and his Law is a profound and thorough expression of that.


Part 4: The Gray Areas

The Bible is a big book with a lot of words, but it still doesn’t spell everything out. How could it? Detailed instructions for every moral dilemma that a person might encounter would fill up more books than have ever been written. This is not to say that the Bible doesn’t have something to say about every question in life–it does–but primarily it informs rather than dictates.

The purpose of the Bible, at least as it pertains to our daily behavior, isn’t to make our decisions for us, but to give us guidelines and principles by which we can learn to make sound decisions for ourselves. Like any child, we need to have some things spelled out for us, but we shouldn’t remain as children. Eventually, the rules need to be internalized and understood so thoroughly that we are able to navigate moral obstacles for which we have no prior experience and no direct instructions.

Most Christians have been taught all their lives that the Sabbath was thrown out with our sins, that having been forgiven by God for not following his rules, we are free to…not follow his rules. Despite the logical absurdity of such a doctrine and despite the total lack of any Biblical support, this is the assumption of almost all Christians in America today.

Those of us who have begun hearing the Spirit’s call to return to God’s ways of life over the last few decades are like infants just learning to walk. Fortunately, we can get some guidance to those who have more experience keeping the Sabbath, like Jewish rabbis and Seventh Day Adventists, and there can be no doubt that they have much to teach us. However, their teachings–especially those of the rabbis–are heavily weighted toward tradition over commandment. Rabbinic teaching on the Sabbath can be quite helpful from a philosophical standpoint, but it frequently lacks something on the practical side…or perhaps I should say that it doesn’t lack enough. We won’t gain any ground if we simply replace one set of man-made traditions with another.

In this article, I discuss God’s explicit instructions about the Sabbath as they were given through Moses and the prophets, but we are separated from the cultural context of the Bible by a very long span of time. There were no computers, no automobiles, and no emergency rooms when the Scriptures were written. Today we don’t live in a culture that recognizes the Sabbath, let alone honors it.

We have some gray areas, to say the least. I can’t address them all, but I can discuss some common questions and provide some guidelines for helping you to make your own decisions in your peculiar circumstances.

Before we can see clearly enough to judge shades of grays, we need to consider the nature of Sabbath and why God wants us to rest on the seventh day of the week. This will give us more light to push back that fog.

The Positive and Negative Commandments

Let me quickly review some of what I’ve discussed above.

God never said, “Here’s the real deal behind the Sabbath.” He gave us patterns and stories instead. He said, “I rested, so you will rest too. You were slaves in Egypt, so you will let others rest with you.” And he gave us explicit rules, some positive and some negative, to tell us how he means for us to rest.

The Positive Commandments

  1. Keep the Sabbath holy for God’s sake
  2. Assemble on the Sabbath
  3. Rest and allow others to rest
  4. Perform essential Temple and Covenantal duties

The Negative Commandments

  1. Don’t provide for yourself or others through labor or trade
  2. Don’t place burdens of any kind on yourself or others

The specifics of what God told us to do and not do on the Sabbath tell us much about the day’s purpose.

The Nature of Sabbath

There is a large literary structure (known as a chiasm) in Exodus that links the weekly Sabbath to the wilderness Tabernacle.

  • 24:12-18 – The glory of God on the mountain
    • 25:31-11 – Construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings
      • 31:12-17 – The Sabbath
        • 31:18-34:35 – Stone tablets, golden calf, commandments, God’s glory
      • 35:1-3 – The Sabbath
    • 35:4-40:33 – Construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings
  • 40:34-38 – The glory of God on the Tabernacle

The events surrounding the golden calf are walled off from the rest of Torah, first by the Sabbath and second by the Tabernacle.

There are two reasons for this:

First, the Tabernacle and the Sabbath are both places set apart for interacting with God. The Tabernacle is set apart in space, while the Sabbath is set apart in time. Our interactions with God aren’t restricted to these places–we ought to pray and serve him in every place and on every day–but these places are especially holy, reserved for God’s purposes and not our own.

Second, both the Tabernacle and the Sabbath were given by God to restore his people to healthy relationship with him. The Tabernacle separated us from sin and death because those things are anathema to God’s presence. We were created to live in harmony with God’s order. The Sabbath separates us from worry and oppression because these too are not how God wants us to exist. He wants us to live in faith and freedom.

Consider that, no matter what day of the week you believe Yeshua was crucified, we know for certain that he was in the grave for the whole seventh day. It seems to me that the Sabbath would be the perfect day to restore a person to life, and that’s exactly what he did. But he didn’t restore himself to life on that day; he restored us! He remained in the grave on the Sabbath day to show that all of our spiritual burdens were crucified with him and permanently removed from our souls. When he rose at the start of the first day, he left those burdens behind so that we could remain free.

David Wilkerson once said that “Breaking the Sabbath is simply carrying your burdens that belong on his back.

On just this one day of the week, God wants us to trust in him. Yes, we could make more money if we worked that extra day, but we earn more where it really counts–in God’s ledgers–by trusting him even when we don’t see the point. Through obedience and faith, we are brought back just a little bit closer to our origins in the Garden of Eden, where we walked with God in harmony with one another and with his Creation.

The Sabbath is a day for restoring life, for easing burdens, for building trust in God, for repairing what has been broken, and for rebuilding the relationship between Man and God.

Standing in God’s presence on the weekly Sabbath is as close to Eden as we will ever get in this life.

So on the seventh day of every week, we leave labor and business behind. We refrain from doing those things that increase burdens, provide for ourselves, or cause others to have to work for their own futures. We rest our bodies, minds, and spirits, and we refresh ourselves in worship, Bible study, and fellowship.

Can I Do This on the Sabbath?

With all of this in mind, let’s consider some activities that can be difficult to judge.

Business-Related Activities on the Sabbath

The impact of Sabbath on physical labor and business are fairly easy to understand, but what about activities that are related to business, but don’t directly affect your bottom line? Business conferences, professional education, and reading professional publications, for example.

Even though we might not be paid directly for our time spent in these activities, money isn’t the only capital at play. Time, connections, and knowledge are also business resources that can be traded and used for material gain.

Maybe you find technical manuals and trade journals relaxing. That seems unlikely to me, but it’s possible. However, if you’re doing something primarily for your economic well-being, no matter what it is, I don’t see any way around it being “business”, and God said not to do business on the Sabbath.

Entertainment on the Sabbath

God wants the seventh day to be different than the other six days of the week. He wants our minds primarily focused on him.

Isaiah 58:13-14 says we should call the Sabbath a delight instead of doing our own pleasure on that day.

Does that mean we can’t do anything fun on the Sabbath? No, it means that we shouldn’t do we want instead of keeping the Sabbath. It does not mean that we can’t do anything that gives us pleasure. It’s fine to play games or watch a movie, depending on the game and the movie.

Watching television is potentially a more complicated matter. Modern technologies like digital programming and Internet streaming certainly require fewer people to be at work for you to watch television on the Sabbath than it used to, but what about the technicians that monitor the equipment and the power company employees who maintain the electrical grid?

This line of inquiry could be endless. Exactly where you end it is up to you. I would discourage you from watching live events, like sports, that require many people to be at their occupations on the Sabbath, but I wouldn’t worry about power company employees and others who maintain the infrastructure of civilization. Even if everyone turned their televisions off, most of those people would still be at work. (That raises another question about job requirements, but I’ll get to that below.)

To know whether or not a fun pastime is compatible with the Sabbath, ask yourself if it involves strenuous physical activity or work, if it requires anyone else to work, and if it dishonors God. If you can answer no to those questions, then it’s probably alright.

Sports and Athletics on the Sabbath

I know that what I have to say about athletic activities on the Sabbath will be unpopular, but I’m not here to validate your desires. I’m writing to help you see God’s will for your life.

If you are you a professional athlete, this question becomes much simpler. Your sport is your occupation. If you are paid to play basketball, then don’t play basketball and don’t do any of the drills and other activities that you might otherwise do to train on the Sabbath.

If you don’t make money from playing a sport, whether or not it violates the Sabbath depends on the sport and on your physical condition. The primary questions become:

  1. Is it physically strenuous? Rest is a positive commandment. We are required to take it easy on the Sabbath, but what “rest” means will vary from one person to the next. If you’re a triathlete, then a bit of badminton probably isn’t much work, but that won’t be true for everyone or every activity. What is casually relaxing to one person might be more demanding on another.
  2. Does it cause anyone else to work? Are you going somewhere that requires paid staff on site? Golf might not be hard work, but if playing requires other people to engage in their occupations, then you will be causing them to violate the Sabbath.

You will have to consider these questions carefully, for yourself and for anyone else who might want to join you.

Housekeeping on the Sabbath

Housekeeping might not seem like a gray area to many people, but it’s not as simple as it seems.

For some people, a cluttered and dirty space can be very stressful. It could also be unpleasant for guests. What if your congregation shares a building with a Sunday church and the youth group left a mess the night before your meeting? Should you clean up or ignore it? Like other gray areas, this can be a very personal issue and difficult to judge, so let me give you some guidelines, and I’ll leave the details to you.

  • If housekeeping is one of your responsibilities during the week, avoid it on the Sabbath as much as possible.
  • If it’s only a matter of personal comfort, consider changing your location instead of cleaning.
  • If it’s a matter of making guests feeling welcome and being a good host, do what you have to do, but no more than you have to do.
  • Many hands make light work. If your shared space is dirty or cluttered, working together will minimize the work for everyone.
  • Straightening up and putting the dishes away might not be work. Scrubbing definitely is.
  • Ask yourself, does this really need to be done right now? Are you absolutely certain it can’t wait until after sunset?

Cooking on the Sabbath

It seems to me that cooking is very much like athletics and housekeeping, at least on the Sabbath. Whether or not cooking a meal is a violation really depends on what’s involved in the process and how you feel about it. Avoid big, complicated productions, and if cooking is one of your daily responsibilities, then you should avoid it on the Sabbath as much as possible.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see how scrambled eggs and toast is work unless you’re cooking for the whole family or a large group. Whenever possible, have food prepared ahead of time, and if you have to cook, keep it simple and easy. Distribute the workload by letting someone cook for you or letting everyone fend for themselves.

Intellectual Activities on the Sabbath

I don’t know of anyone who would say Bible study breaks the Sabbath, but there must be some point at which mental activities become real work. As with physical activities, that point is subjective. What strains my brain might not strain yours.

There are some intellectual exercises that clearly cross the line, though. Homework, accounting (even if it’s strictly personal finances), scientific research, computer programming, professional studies… All of these things require significant brainpower, are usually done as part of a professional occupation, and serve to take our minds far from the purpose of Sabbath, which is to restore spiritual balance and enhance our relationships with God and man.

Everything that a person might do requires some amount of thought, so there will always be a gradient between what is and is not appropriate. Intellectual activities are no different than physical ones in that respect. Referring back to the positive and negative commandments of Sabbath will help you clear up most of the questions.

What If My Boss Wants Me to Work on the Sabbath?

Most people work for employers who do not keep a seventh day Sabbath as God commanded, and very few are able to quit their jobs whenever they want. We have families and financial responsibilities and losing a job could be catastrophic.

We should do what we can to be off of work on the seventh day. Explain the situation to your boss. Tell him how important it is to you to have that day off, but if you are ultimately faced with a choice between working and losing your home or letting your family go hungry, then keep going to work while you look for another job. It’s important that you don’t give up and assume you can’t change your situation. Until you find another source of income, go to the office or shop or job site cheerfully. Don’t be resentful, but use it as an opportunity to bring a little bit of Sabbath to the people you work with. God provides for those who believe in him.

If your job involves maintaining critical infrastructure or providing medical or other vital services, then don’t feel bad about working on the Sabbath. You don’t necessarily need to look for a different job, either. Preserving life and treating the sick and injured takes precedence. These are good things to do on the Sabbath. Rest on another day and try to rotate the Sabbath with coworkers so that no one person has to be at work every weekend.

Gradients of Gray

I can’t address every possible scenario. The specific circumstances that any person might encounter are infinite. Fortunately, after going through the general categories of activities above, some helpful patterns and questions should become clear. If you can answer yes to any of the following questions, then you should seriously consider not doing that activity on the Sabbath.

  • Does this activity materially benefit me or my family today or in the future?
  • Does this activity involve strenuous physical activity?
  • Does this activity involve doing business or engaging in my occupation or does it encourage anyone else to work?
  • Does this activity put unnecessary burdens on myself or anyone else?

Since nothing we do is one dimensional, we also need to consider mitigating factors. If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then it might be OK to keep doing what you’re doing.

  • Does this activity preserve life or maximize the rest and restoration of myself or others?
  • Does this activity facilitate the gathering of believers to worship and study together?
  • Would not doing this activity cause severe consequences to anyone’s well-being?

Many things that we find ourselves wanting to do on the Sabbath (cleaning, cooking, fueling the car, etc.) would have been done ahead of time. These are habits that we need to work on. Don’t beat yourself up about getting some things wrong now and then. Just keep moving in the right direction.

Ultimately, I can only tell you what the Bible says. Everything else is just my opinion. You are the one living in your own skin and in your own house. You have to weigh all the factors and weight your priorities in order to decide for yourself what is acceptable and what isn’t.

If someday you discover that you need to change your behavior, then change it. Repent and move on. God is faithful and eager to forgive those whose trust is in him. Don’t waste time feeling guilty about honest mistakes, and don’t let other people judge you over matters of tradition and opinion. (See Colossians 2:16-23.)

If someone wastes time and energy accusing you of violating commands that exist only in their personal interpretation of Scripture, then they are putting unnecessary burdens on people and disrupting the restoration that ought to be their focus on Sabbath. They are putting themselves squarely in the camp of the Pharisees who replaced God’s commands with their own traditions, and they are aligning themselves with Satan, whose primary function is to falsely accuse the faithful.

Don’t argue with them. Bless them, pray for them, and then ignore them.

Many questions will not have clear answers. God doesn’t draw big, neon signs in the air to point us in the right direction, and this is part of his plan for our growth. Maturity comes through friction and hard choices. Pray, study the scriptures for yourself, ask for advice, and move forward in your own spiritual development.

Shabbat shalom!

We don’t fit here anymore. What now?

We weren't created to be lone wolves, but to live in community.

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
Leviticus 19:2

Jeff & Barb’s Story

When Jeff first began to believe that he should be keeping the Sabbath the way that God instructed, on the seventh day of the week instead of the first, he did what many good Christians do: he asked his pastor for advice. Jeff’s pastor told him what he had been taught: Jesus canceled the Sabbath so we didn’t need to keep it anymore, and the Apostles moved the Sabbath to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. When Jeff asked where that was in the Bible, his pastor could only point to where Jesus disagreed with the Pharisees about how to keep the Sabbath and where the first century believers consistently gathered on the first day of the week. He couldn’t point to any verse that plainly stated Jesus canceled the Sabbath or that the Apostles changed the day, nor why the Apostles would change the day of an observance that Jesus had canceled.

Unsurprisingly, Jeff wasn’t convinced.

The pastor asked him to keep these concerns between just the two of them, but the unanswered questions accumulated, and they came to frequently derail the intended course of discussions in the small group where he and his wife, Barb, met with other church members on Thursday nights. Some of the other members in that group also began to ask questions. Then there was a shouting match.

Jeff and his family began lighting Shabbat candles just before sunset on Friday evening, and spending Saturdays together at home. Although they frequently helped clean up after services on Sunday, they stopped participating in Saturday work projects.

They began feeling like outsiders in the church they had attended for many years. They no longer believed the same as everyone else on some significant issues. They couldn’t participate in some Friday night and Saturday events. Their attendance at Bible study was sometimes fractious and always resented by a few. Barb had begun asking awkward questions about every dish at church pot luck dinners.

“Is there pork in that meatloaf?”
“Do you know what kind of sausage that is?”

When the pastor called and asked them to meet with him again, he didn’t say what it was about, but Jeff and Barb both knew. They would either be asked to leave or to stop asking questions. Jeff wasn’t sure which would be worse. For both of them, the heartache started before they even got in the car.

Their church wasn’t their home anymore.

God is calling people all over the world to return to his instructions, to keep his Sabbaths, his appointed feast days, his rules for living, speaking, and loving. Some of those people call themselves Messianic Jews, some Hebrew Roots, Sabbath Keepers, or some other label. Most, like me, don’t fit cleanly into any of these groups. They only know that the churches are missing some vital aspects of the teachings of Jesus, the Apostles, and all of the Scriptures, and they’re trying their best to find those pieces and put them back into the puzzle where they belong.

But in following God’s call to repentance, they face two major challenges:

  • The loss of old relationships
  • The lack of new relationships

Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to continue regular fellowship with those who have not yet heard the call or who have heard and rejected it without deafening oneself. To speak is to bring strife, but to remain silent seems like complicity in a lie.

This degree to which this is a problem varies from one church to another. Some churches are little more than social clubs, and others barely make a pretense of Biblical doctrine. Jeff and Barb probably wouldn’t have lasted so long at one of those churches. Some are much better–and therefore much harder to leave–and a few are very good, even to the point of openly tolerating us Hebraic misfits.

If you find yourself in a situation like Jeff’s, I can’t tell you what you should do–every situation is different–but eventually, you will either have to transform your church or exchange it for something else.

Becoming a spiritual hermit isn’t a viable option. People without community tend to lose their grounding. Without the balance of other believers and guidance of more knowledgeable teachers, their spiritual pursuits often become dominated by shiny object syndrome. They jump from one fringe idea to another with nobody to keep them anchored to reasonableness. Their understanding of Scripture becomes unbalanced, and their spiritual lives either stagnate or get lost in irrelevancy. We need community to be healthy by every conceivable metric. Internet teachings and live streams just don’t cut it.

Finding a Home

When you look for a congregation (I write “congregation” rather than “church” because many of them will use some other word.) that both recognizes Jesus as Messiah and keeps God’s Law, you might find a variety of options, or you might find nothing at all. Let me give you a brief rundown of what’s available.

    • Seventh Day churches of various denominations. You’ve probably heard of the Seventh Day Adventist church, but there are also Baptists, Church of God, and even LDS (aka Mormon) churches which keep a seventh day Sabbath. If you are serious about keeping God’s instructions, these will come up short in time. They keep the Sabbath and the Biblical feasts to varying degrees, but usually stop there. They also tend to come with an amount of baggage related to false prophecies and extra-Biblical scriptures.
    • Messianic Jewish. Technically, Messianic Jews are Jewish people who believe that Jesus (aka Yeshua) is the Messiah. They will call their meeting place a “synagogue”, and their services and operation range from Jewish to liturgical Christian.
    • Other. These are the Hebrew Roots congregations, non-denoms, upstarts, rebels, and flakes. Since neither you nor I have the time to list every possible variation, I am forced to dump all that remains, good and bad, into a single category. Here you will find home fellowships, Black Hebrew Israelites, Torah-observant Christians, Sacred-Namers, and just about anything else that you could imagine. They will range from the outstanding to the diabolical, and it can be very confusing to sort through them. Here are a few warning signs to watch out for. Only the last one would be a total deal-killer for me. Your mileage might vary.
      • The pastor/rabbi/leader has changed his name to sound more Hebrew or otherwise ethnic.
      • They use bizarre spellings of commonly known Hebrew words, especially if it’s really important to them.*
      • They rely heavily on extra-Biblical writings, such as the Talmud, Books of Enoch, or Kabbalah.
      • They keep a lunar Sabbath (a weekly Sabbath that drifts through the days of the week because it’s calculated from the new moon, not the historic 7 day week that the rest of the world uses).
      • They believe the earth is flat. Run, do not walk, to the nearest fire escape.

You will never find a perfect congregation nor meet another human being who agrees with you on every point. If you did, you probably shouldn’t be friends with them. Like many fruit trees need winter freezes, we need an amount of conflict and disagreement in our lives to be healthy.

Identify what’s really important, and therefore what isn’t. A church or synagogue that promotes behavior God abhors, can be easily eliminated. If they calculate God’s feast days by the sighting of the new moon in Jerusalem instead of the astronomically calculated calendar used by the mainstream Jewish calendar, that might not be such a big deal. You’ll have to decide what your priorities are, as well as what they should be, and then act accordingly.

The one thing you should not do is go it alone. God made us to be communal creatures. His Law teaches us how to love, but only within the context of community. If a Methodist or an Assemblies of God church is the best option available in your area, don’t dismiss it.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Hebrews 10:24-25

Go to church if that’s what God has provided, and then consider starting something new. Maybe God has placed you where you are for just that purpose.


A Note on Names

* I hate that I have to bring this up, but there is actually a lot of disagreement about how to spell and pronounce the Hebrew name of God and Jesus, and some people get very intense about it. I think these arguments are mostly wastes of time, but since they are out there, they need to be addressed, however briefly. The table below presents the various ways I have seen the names spelled. Those in the “Good” column are conventional and widely accepted by most historians and linguists. Those in the “Iffy” column are less likely to be accurate, but aren’t terribly unreasonable. Those in the “Nope” column are almost certainly wrong, and people who insist on them probably have much more serious problems. I strongly recommend avoiding congregations that insist there is one, and only one possible correct spelling or pronunciation of the divine names, and anyone who doesn’t use their version is a heretic.

English Good Iffy Nope
LORD
God
Jehovah
YHVH
YHWH
Yahweh
Yahovah
Yehovah
Yahuah
Yahawah
Ahyah
Jesus Yeshua
Yehoshua
Y’shua
Yahshua Yahawashi
Yahusha
Yashaya
Yahuwshuwa

God Hates His People

God hates his people.

Or at least that’s what many churches teach. They quote Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in which he said, “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commands all men every where to repent.” (Acts 17:30) Then they quote Yeshua’s statements along the lines of “You have heard it said thus, but I tell you differently.” And they conclude that God’s Law no longer applies and at least partly consisted of God winking at sin all along. The Law was incomplete and Jesus fixed it. Or worse, that God played Keep-Away with eternal salvation by setting the Jews up with an impossible standard even while he told them that it wasn’t that hard.

God loves his people! His word is true! Obedience brings Life! God never changes!Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. That’s not hyperbole. They literally don’t understand what they’re saying. I have to wonder if those theologians have ever actually read their proof texts. Neither Yeshua nor Paul was addressing the Law of God in those passages. Yeshua was correcting traditions of men, which misrepresented the Law, and Paul was speaking of total ignorance of the Law, which, for the sake of your faith in him, God overlooks until you are able to learn it.

The idea that God deliberately hobbled his Law by “winking” at certain sins or hobbled his people by making them dependent on an impossible standard for their salvation means that God hates the very people whom he claims to love.

You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall always rebuke your neighbor, and not allow sin on him. (Leviticus 19:17)

If God compromised his Law in deference to the prevailing culture (you know, that Egyptian culture of idolatry and incestuous marriage), then, by his own standards, he hated Israel even while he proclaimed his love. If the church is right, that God established sin in his Law or lied about his real expectations, then God is a liar and a hater of mankind.

What man is there of you, if his son asks a loaf, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks a fish, will he give him a snake? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father in Heaven give good things to those who ask Him? (Matthew 7:9-11)

Which, of course, means that Yeshua was also a liar and evil. His execution was deserved, and we have no hope of salvation.

Ever.

The entire history of God’s interaction with man has been a long, cruel joke. The manna was poisoned, and the Passover lamb was infested with parasites.

But I don’t believe any of that!

I believe that David knew of what he spoke when he said that “The Law of YHWH is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of YHWH is sure, making the simple wise. The Precepts of YHWH are right, rejoicing the heart; the Commandments of YHWH are pure, giving light to the eyes.” (Psalm 19:7-8) I believe that when Yeshua said, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” he meant all of his commandments, and not only the ones that he had to tell us twice.

I believe that God loves his people, that his Word is true, that obedience to his Word brings life, and that he never changes. What was a sin three thousand years ago remains a sin today. What was not a sin three thousand years ago is still not a sin today.

Because God is love, and a loving Father doesn’t give his son a stone when he asks for bread. (Matthew 7:9)

When Love Requires Violence

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-45a,48)

In Matthew 5, Yeshua corrected a number of man-made doctrines and misunderstandings of Biblical principles. Although Leviticus 19:18 says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, there is no command in Scripture to “hate your enemy”. It’s easy to see where they would get such an idea, though. In Psalm 139, David wrote,

Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:21-22)

This sounds at first like David hated his enemies, but that’s not what he said. David hated “those who rise up against” God and also counted them as his own enemies. He didn’t say that he hated his own enemies, most especially those who merely hated God in their hearts–which is bad enough–but only those who took action on their hatred, who rose up against God in open rebellion, attempting to bring others into their error.

On the national level, the Tanakh (the Old Testament) records numerous instances of God commanding Israel to attack those who had made themselves enemies of God either by attacking God’s people directly or by attempting to lead them into sin through which they could be cursed and defeated.

This is exactly the strategy that Balaam taught Moab and Midian to use against Israel. By attacking Israel, those nations became God’s enemies. If they had attacked Israel only in self-defense, they would still be Israel’s enemies, but not necessarily God’s, and Israel would be in the wrong. But they didn’t attack Israel in self-defense. They didn’t even attack because they hated Israel, but because they hated God who had chosen Israel instead of them.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.” (Numbers 25:16-18)

There is no instance of God commanding Israel to attack or hate anyone simply because they were rivals or enemies of Israel. Edom also hated Israel, but unlike Midian and the various Canaanite nations, they didn’t rise up against God. Despite centuries of conflict between the rival kingdoms, God commanded Israel to respect the boundaries of Edom until they were both conquered by Babylon.

The same principle holds true for interpersonal relationships, especially between brothers among God’s people. In Matthew 5:43-48, Yeshua drew on the broader context of the original source of “love your neighbor as yourself”, Leviticus 19:1-30. This passage is structured as a chiasm (see here for more information on chiasms) in which commands to refrain from hateful behavior are sandwiched between instructions on sacrifice, refraining from idolatry, and reverencing parents, Tabernacle, and Sabbath.

  • v3 – Reverence for parents & Sabbath
    • v4 – Idolatry/paganism
      • v5-10 – Sacrifice and food
        • v11-20 – Fraud, oppression, hatred, mixtures, sexual abuse
      • v21-26a – Sacrifice and food
    • v26b-29 – Idolatry/paganism
  • v30 – Reverence for Tabernacle & Sabbath

A chiasm in Leviticus 19:3-30 that equates hatred with idolatry.This is very similar to another, much larger, chiastic structure in Exodus 25-40. In that instance, the idolatry of the golden calf, after which God commanded the faithful of Israel to kill their own brothers, is set between the stone tablets, Sabbath, and instructions for the Tabernacle. See more details on that chiasm here.

God’s intent in this arrangement appears to be to equate unjust hatred for one’s brothers with idolatry, or hatred of God himself. To paraphrase God’s message…

Don’t steal from or lie to one another. Don’t oppress the powerless. Don’t hold hatred in your heart for your brother. Don’t speak ill of one another. Respect the boundaries I have created. Just like you, your brothers are created in my image and if you abuse them, it is like you are abusing me. My true worshiper not only offers sacrifices and reverences his parents, my sanctuary, and my Sabbath, but reverences his brothers, even those who have done him wrong.

Mercy is always God’s default position. He loves all mankind and doesn’t want even a single person to be lost. But for reasons of his own, he has created us able to reject him and each other. We are fully capable of theft, rape, and murder, and God doesn’t stop us from committing whatever wicked act comes into our hearts.

Just as he has empowered us to do evil, he has empowered and even commanded us to correct injustices. We are required to execute murderers and adulterers and to exact punishment and restitution where applicable.

The punishment of criminals and the destruction of entire nations who have sworn enmity against God is not counter to Yeshua’s instructions to love one another. It is impossible to love everyone equally as some are willing oppressors while others are innocently oppressed. To destroy the one is to love the other and God’s word is consistently in favor of the oppressed.*

Usually love means being kind and merciful, but sometimes love also requires violence.

*And by oppressed I don’t mean poor or uneducated. Those are conditions that might be the result of oppression, but they might as easily be the result of natural disasters or poor personal decisions. I mean people who are actively being oppressed by someone else and who are unable to defend themselves.

Update: Here’s a little more detail on that chiasm. The chiasm itself is actually one and one-half segments of a triple parallelism.

  • V3 – Reverence (Mother, Father, Sabbath)
    • V4 – Idolatry
      • V5-10 – Sacrifices and food
        • V11-12 – Fraud
        • V13-15 – Oppression
        • V16-18 – Hatred
        • V19 – Mixtures
        • V20 – Oppression/sexual immorality
      • V21-26a – Sacrifices and food
    • V26b-29 – Idolatry/paganism
  • V30 – Reverence (Sabbath, sanctuary)
    • V31 – Idolatry/paganism
  • V32 – Reverence (Elders)
    • V33-36 – Oppression & Fraud

Nobody’s Perfect, So Don’t Even Try

Does James 2:10 mean that Christians shouldn't try to keep God's law? In Paul's words, Heaven forbid!

Someone once tried to tell me…

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (James 2:10)

Good luck trying to become righteous before God through the law…I wish you the best.

This person was equating “righteous” with “saved”, which isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just irrelevant. Whether or not a Christian is obligated to keep God’s Law has nothing at all to do with whether or not it makes a person sufficiently righteous to merit salvation. Abstaining from murder doesn’t make one righteous in this sense either, but no one believes Christians are therefore free to commit murder.

This person is essentially saying, “You can’t keep the Law perfectly, so don’t even try,” which is precisely the opposite of what James was trying to say. Just three verses earlier, he quoted Torah (the Law) from Leviticus 19:18, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scriptures, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.” Does it really make sense to interpret James as saying “If you’re trying to keep the Law, you’re doing a good thing, but since you can’t keep all of it, don’t try to keep any of it”? How absurd!

No, James was saying, “It’s great if you love your neighbor, but don’t forget about all the rest of it.”

Nobody’s perfect. We’re all going to fall short of God’s standards (aka Torah). That’s why Yeshua’s sacrifice was necessary. But don’t take inevitable failure as permission to fail. It’s not.