In my post, Doubting Sabbatarianism on This Sabbath, I mentioned a few problems that I have with Christian Sabbatarianism, the doctrine that God requires Christians to observe the seventh-day Sabbath. Here, I want to interact with arguments that scholar and ex-Seventh-Day Adventist Desmond Ford has made.
A few disclaimers: First of all, I’ll be citing some of his arguments from memory–from things that I’ve read in Dr. Ford’s books as well as Good News Unlimited. This is not the most scholarly approach, I know, but I want to interact with his arguments without having to track down every single source for what I’ve read and heard. Moreover, some of his arguments crop up in Christian Sabbatarianism, so I’m not only responding to him when I address them.
Second, my post is not a thorough summary of Dr. Ford’s position, for it only interacts with select aspects. He has better arguments than what I will be addressing, so I encourage people to read his works.
Here we go!
1. Dr. Ford has argued that Colossians 2:16 is not enough to overthrow the Sabbath. He states that “in the whole of Scripture, only the lonely Colossians 2:16 can be invoked against the thunders and lightnings, the divine voice and finger of Sinai” (see here). I remember him saying in Good News Unlimited that the Sabbath’s exit should be as glamorous as its entrance. When God gave the Sabbath to Israel, Ford pointed out, he did so with thunders and lightnings and noise and fanfare. So why would God abolish the Sabbath with a puny verse like Colossians 2:16, which doesn’t even explicitly do away with the institution?
But a Sunday-keeper can respond that the Sabbath’s exit didn’t come about with Colossians 2:16. Rather, it occurred with the death of Christ, which actually was accompanied by lots of fanfare (e.g., darkness, earthquakes, the rending of the temple veil–see Matthew 27).
And Colossians 2:16 does seem to refer back to what Jesus accomplished on the cross. It states: “Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (NRSV). What’s the “therefore” refer back to? Possibly v 14, which says that Christ “eras[ed] the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.” If Colossians 2:16 means what Sunday-keepers say, then the Sabbath had an exit that was as grand as its entrance.
2. Like most Sabbatarians, Dr. Ford treats the Sabbath as a creation ordinance, meaning that all human beings should observe it. He refers to Mark 2:27: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” According to Ford, the passage affirms that the Sabbath was made for man, not just the Jew. Moreover, in a debate with a Church of Christ minister, Ford argued that the text literally claims that the Sabbath was made for “the man,” namely, Adam.
First of all, just because Mark 2:27 uses “man,” does that mean everyone has to keep the Sabbath? The discussion in Mark 2 wasn’t really about whether the Sabbath applied to both Jews and Gentiles. Rather, it concerned the proper application of God’s Torah to Israel. When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:13), they weren’t taking “man” to mean each and every human being (though Jesus’ ruling later in the chapter does apply to all people). Instead, they were inquiring as to how they should apply their own national law, which often used “man” (Hebrew “adam,” or in the LXX, “anthropos“) to refer to those under its jurisdiction: Israelites and resident aliens. That could be what we see in Mark 2:27.
Second, while it’s pretty obvious to me that God instituted the Sabbath at creation (see Genesis 2:3; Exodus 20:11; 31:17), does that have to mean he required its observance before Israel came into being? Genesis 2:3 just says that God rested on the seventh day, not that anyone else did. Maybe he was saving his own special day for Israel–as a sign of her chosen status.
But there was ambiguity about this issue within Judaism, a topic I’ll save for future discussion.
3. Ford states: “Christ himself kept the Sabbath in life as well as in death…During his life he risked his whole ministry to show how the Sabbath should be kept…He worked seven miracles on the Sabbath and proclaimed it a day to celebrate God’s redemption. Form criticism reminds us that the Gospels preserved only details which were relevant for the church after the cross. And they had many references to the Sabbath” (see here).
What exactly was Jesus trying to accomplish in his Sabbath controversies? That’s a debate within Christianity. When he healed on the Sabbath, was he setting the institution aside for the sake of human well-being? Or was he showing us how to properly keep the Sabbath, as he upheld its values of freedom and liberty? I wrestled with this in my post, Matthew 11:28-12:14: Jesus and the Sabbath.
But Ford has argued that the Gospels were composed after Paul’s writings, so their references to the Sabbath indicate the institution’s continued viability for Christians, long after Jesus’ death on the cross. After all, why would the Gospels’ authors harp on the Sabbath, if they didn’t think Christians should observe it?
Is this a good argument? My problem with it is this: The Gospels often present Jesus speaking favorably of institutions that eventually passed away. Jesus cleansed the temple, calling it his “Father’s house” and “a house of prayer” (Matthew 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:15-17). He commended a poor widow, who donated her last two mites to the temple treasury (Luke 21:1-4). He told a leper he cleansed, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Matthew 8:4). And he said that the Pharisees were correct to tithe (Matthew 23:23).
In all of these statements, Jesus upholds a piety that includes the temple and the levitical priesthood. Yet, the Epistle of Hebrews is clear that these things are no longer relevant to Christians, at least not in a literal sense. As far as Hebrews is concerned, Christ has fulfilled all that. So should we conclude that the Gospels treat the Sabbath as binding for Christians, just because they present Jesus interacting with it? Maybe they’re just saying that Jesus was a good person, in terms of the piety of his time.
I realize there are strong arguments that Sabbatarians can advance. For instance, Isaiah 56 and 66 present the Sabbath as an institution for both Jews and Gentiles. I may discuss this in a future post–not necessarily tomorrow, but sometime. Stay tuned!