This year, a consultation entitled: “Sabbath in Text, Tradition, and Theology” was held at the Society of Biblical Literature. I was able to attend one of the sessions which was styled, The Sabbath in the New Testament.
Tom Shepherd, of Andrews University presented a paper on the Gospel of Mark which asked the question, how the implied reader of Mark’s Gospel was to understand the references to the Sabbath day included in the Gospel. As we read Mark today, we notice that when the Sabbath is mentioned, Jesus or Mark does not seek to educate the reader about the Sabbath Day. That detail was expected to be known. It is a surprise to many people today to realize that the first followers of Jesus all observed the Sabbath. Mark’s Gospel is clearly written with that in view.
What Mark seeks to convey is the teaching of Jesus about the Sabbath day and how it should be properly kept as opposed to the accretion of traditions that people had imposed. In Mark 2 and 3, two incidents relating to the Sabbath are provided. Because of the way that the book has been divided into chapters and verses, long after the Gospel had been written, we can easily lose sight of the message being conveyed. Mark presents Jesus as providing proper understanding for the listeners. In the two cases, the instruction is given in response to a question. Firstly the religious leaders asked one of Jesus (2:23-28), in the second, the roles are reversed. Jesus asks the question of the leaders (3:1-5). The results of the two questions are not the abrogation of the Sabbath commands, but an understanding of the standards that Jesus and by extension, the Father expect in the Sabbath observance.
Of the seven occurrences of the term Sabbath in the Gospel of Mark, two record Jesus teaching in the Synagogue on the Sabbath Day (Mark 1:21, 6:1). The consequence of both occasions was recorded as public amazement at the quality of teaching of Jesus. Between these two Synagogue events, we have the teaching provided about the Sabbath in chapter 2 & 3, as though they are sandwiched between the two events to give the reader an insight into the reasons for the reaction to the teaching. So easily overlooked is the fact that in both cases, they seek to undo the tradition associated with the Sabbath and not the Sabbath itself. This would have been ideal place for Jesus to describe the Sabbath as being redundant, or for Mark writing years after the death of Jesus to editorialize that this was now all changed because the church now kept Sunday in memorial of His resurrection. Such is not the case.
Actually, we find the followers of Jesus, including the Apostle Paul, keeping the Sabbath and Festivals along with the rest of the Jewish community. The Scriptures such as Acts 20:7-11 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 which have long been used to justify Sunday observance have nothing to do with worship or Sabbath or Sunday keeping. The use of Sunday rather than the Sabbath as a time of meeting probably did not get traction among people until the second century, and certainly was not fully established in congregations until the end of the 4th Century.
Jesus together with his disciples and those who followed him kept the Sabbath faithfully as they had been instructed. The concepts about the Sabbath and its non application to Christians is a latter idea that has no apostolic or Biblicala basis.