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The Sabbath Question: Part I (The Practice and Precepts of Jesus) by James MacGregor

By April 19, 2011April 12th, 2016The Sabbath

I. The Practice and Precepts of Jesus

I will introduce the discussion of the question by commenting on the lessons derivable from the gospel history of the Word Incarnate. It is true that, from the first verse of Genesis to the last of Revelation, every word of God prepares the believer for the due apprehension of all that follows; and that no one is duly prepared for apprehending any part of Scripture who has not been educated, in faith and love, by all that has gone before. Yet in a very obvious respect the gospel story of Jesus the Christ is the center and foundation of all theological study. For the Son of Mary is the keystone of the system of Bible evidence: everything rests on His purity and truthfulness as a man: no one who acknowledges His personal purity and truthfulness can consistently stop short of receiving the Bible as a true revelation of God.

Against our doctrine, with reference to the question of the Sabbath, to the wider question of the commandments of God in general, and to the yet wider question of the written Word of God, an appeal has been made to Jesus. They claim Him as their authority for rejecting the Sabbath law, and disclaiming allegiance to detailed commandments in general, and disdainfully disregarding the letter or form of the express mind of God as communicated in the Bible. It will be profitable here to consider the real bearing of the Saviour’s personal history and teaching on the varied aspects of the question now before us.

1. As to the Written Word of God. Here our adversaries make some confused reference to the distinction between the letter of the word and its spirit. But this distinction is nothing to their purpose. In any written word, the spirit or meaning is inseparable from the letter or form: on the one hand, the letter without the spirit is mere printer’s ink; and on the other hand, it is only in the letter that the spirit has ‘a local habitation or a name.’ Where, if not in the letter of the written word, do our falsetto spiritualists find that spirit of God’s mind which is revealed in Scripture? Is it in some ‘innermost divine consciousness of their own,’ independent of that written word which is His mind expressed? If it be, then let them give up the name of Christian; for Christianity, under one leading aspect, consists in believing ‘the Word of Christ’ as prophet of the Church. But they have appealed to Jesus, and to Jesus we shall go with them.

They choose to reject the written word in favour of some ‘spirit’ which they represent as peculiarly Christ-like and Christian. But this spirit of theirs is plainly antichristian; their Antinomian cant about a spirit which rejects the word is directly opposed to the teaching of Christ, — e.g. in John 14:21-26, where He represents it as one great work of His Spirit of truth to lead men to receive and cherish the Word which expresses the truth. And this part of His teaching is amply illustrated by His example.

After His baptism, or public consecration as the Christ of God, the first words we find Him uttering are, ‘It is written . . . It is written . . . It is written again.’ The enemy, after exhausting the lower forms of temptation, when driven to his last shift, has looked for the least ignoble temptation that can be presented to a rational spirit, and quotes one of the noblest texts of one of the noblest chapters in the Bible (Ps. 91). Thus one of the two greatest spirits that ever met in mortal conflict reluctantly confesses the supreme importance of the ‘written’ Word of God. But the Spirit of Jesus has made the same confession from the first. From the beginning of His wilderness temptation to its end, so far from drawing upon that ‘innermost divine consciousness’ which with Him was an independent reality, — He rests with a babe-like simplicity on that ‘It is written, it is written, it is written again,’ which is to this hour the stay of believers. Such is the example He sets us in that temptation which is His probation as the Christ, the trial of His qualification for the mediatorial office and work.

And such is the example He continues to set us throughout the temptation or trial of His life to its close, — until, on the cross, He breathes out His life in a sentence of Old Testament Scripture. The whole course of His ministry was in keeping with its beginning and its end. The human life of God’s incarnate Son is the most impressive illustration on record of the first sentence of that ministry: ‘It is written that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word of God.’ Throughout His ministry, He avowedly rested on the Old Testament Scripture as His warrant and witness in all things. If, then, we will follow His example, we too shall act on His maxim, ‘Man shall live only by the Word of God.’

2. As to the commandments of God in general, which are now represented as superseded by love, or by a lawless liberty which does not find its glorious realisation in keeping the commandments. It will be seen that this objection really tells against commandments as such, i.e., against all detailed precepts. But, in the first instance at least, it is meant to tell against the Ten Commandments of the Decalogue.

With reference to these, let us listen to the teaching of Jesus the prophet. He declares with special reference to the Decalogue, that He has not come to destroy the law but to fulfill; and that whoever will break — literally, ‘loosen,’ or ‘deny the binding force of’ — the least of the commandments, and teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven. And so far from saying that love supersedes the law, he declares that the law is only the detailed application of the ‘two great commandments,’ Love God, Love thy neighbour, — that ‘on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ These two great commandments, therefore, if we will believe Him, are the soul of the Old Testament system, the life-giving spirit which keeps the body from corruption and dissolution; and which only in that body has a sensible being and power. Hence, all who seriously receive Him as a teacher from God, ‘if they love Him, will keep His commandments’: if they love God and their neighbour, they will obey those Ten Words which are the incarnation and detailed application of the ‘royal law of love.’

This lesson for all men comes home with peculiar force to those who lay peculiar emphasis on the commonplace truth, that the Decalogue lay at the foundation of the Old Testament Church constitution, or of God’s covenant with His Church of old. That Church constitution had on the face of it a veil of evanescent ceremonial, which has passed away with the evanescent circumstances of the Old Testament Church. But in its substance, as distinguished from evanescent circumstances, that Old Testament constitution remains for the Church of all ages and lands; so that, if the Decalogue lay at the foundation of that constitution, it may be presumed that it is of perpetual obligation at least on Christians. Again, the covenant of God with His people cannot have been merely ceremonial, superficial, formal. It must have included some moral element; it must have bound them to do what man is bound to do as man. And that moral element — where is it to be sought for, if not in the code which lay at the foundation of the covenant?

3. As to the fourth commandment in particular. This our adversaries regard as the illustrative sample, in relation to which our Saviour’s sayings and doings justify them in assailing not only the Sabbath law but the whole Decalogue, and even the written Word of God as such.

(1.) He perfectly obeyed the Sabbath law. Our modern Sadducees loudly praise Him as a Sabbath desecrator. The ancient Pharisees no less loudly condemned Him as a Sabbath desecrator. But here Pilate and Herod condemn in crucifying The Truth. If we will believe Him, He was no desecrator of the Sabbath, but perfectly obeyed the Sabbath law. This is the ground on which He invariably stood in self-defence, on all the occasions on which He was accused of perpetrating or sanctioning a violation of the law. He did not plead that He had a right to break it, but He maintained that He had perfectly obeyed it.

(2.) He declared the purpose of the law to be ‘mercy and not sacrifice.’ Hence the exception in cases of ‘necessity and mercy.’ On account of our professing to recognise this exception to the rule, we Sabbatarians are scoffed at. But in recognising that exception, we do but follow the example of the Son of God. And the exception as declared by the Incarnate Word or Reason of God (Logos) commends itself to the reason of man. The purpose of the sixth commandment is to guard the sacredness of human life. But for this purpose, which is the spirit or meaning of the law, it may be necessary to depart from the letter of the law, ‘Thou shalt not kill’: e.g., in the death punishment of murderers, what society seeks is not the destruction of life but really the preservation of life, by solemn judicial vindication of its sacredness. And in thus departing from the letter of the law in order to obey its spirit, society does not reject the written Word of God, but accepts the letter of that word as the instrument of expressing the spirit of it, and obeys the word itself by doing what God really means men to do: i.e., by effectually providing for the protection of human life. So of the fourth commandment. What God really means in this commandment is to give rest to man’s body and soul. Therefore, He means that we should do everything we innocently can for the realisation of that rest; for example, that all should make due needful provision for bodily ease and comfort, and that ministers should be doing their great work for the healing and comforting of souls. And thus in all cases of real ‘necessity and mercy,’ in working for the realisation of the God-given rest of body and soul we are not breaking the law but really obeying it, that is, doing what God really means us to do.

Hence, too, the law itself. Our adversaries appear to imagine that ‘mercy’ is shown only in the exceptional cases; that the law itself is unmerciful, imposing a painful burden; and that the cases of ‘necessity and mercy’ are simply cases in which the harshness of the law becomes intolerable, that is, extreme cases of the ordinary inhuman spirit of the law. It is not from the gospel history of Jesus that they have learned to think thus. He has taught us that the whole Old Testament system is pervaded by the ‘mercy’ of God to man. He sets forth the Decalogue in general as a notable instance of that love of God, because it gives man so many calls and inducements to the blessedness of loving God and his neighbour. And what he gives us to understand with reference to the Ten Commandments in general He shows to be conspicuously true of the Sabbath law in particular.

It is a significant illustration of the unchristian position of our adversaries that this law, which they have selected as the illustrative sample of the harshness and inhumanity of the Old Testament religion as opposed to the religion of Jesus, is the one only commandment selected by Jesus Himself as an illustrative sample of that ‘mercy and not sacrifice’ which he declares to be the spirit of the Old Testament religion as a whole (Matt. 12:7).

In selecting this law for that purpose, he does not, of course, deny, but virtually affirms the mercifulness of that religion of which it is an illustrative sample. This virtual affirmation extends to those minute ceremonial regulations, and even to those severe penal sanctions of the theocratic system, which have been abrogated by His death. ‘He that spareth his rod hateth his son.’ Under the Old Testament the Church was a child. What a child needs, in order to be trained for a healthful maturity, is a daily and hourly subjection to positive precepts, all imbued with parental tenderness as well as invested with parental authority, and all combining to form a habit of subjection to lawful authority, — a habit which shall remain after the precepts which instrumentally formed it have long been forgotten. And even the severe penal sanctions were fitted to train the Church to feel the great value of the ordinances which were guarded at such a cost. Such is the training which every generation of children receives in well-conditioned Christian families. This training God gave to His Church in her Old Testament childhood by the ceremonial regulations and penal sanctions which are abrogated now. And we, who enjoy the fruits of that training, in a disciplined habit of subjection to God’s law, may well confess, as we look back to the Old Testament discipline, that its presiding spirit was always ‘mercy and not sacrifice.’

The Sabbath which the Saviour thus characterised as a signal illustration of the mercifulness of His religion as revealed of old, was the Jewish Sabbath; for it was in its Jewish form alone that the Sabbath existed in His day. From this we may learn what was the true character of that Jewish Sabbath of whose harshness and austerity and gloomy asceticism so much has been ignorantly said. Of the true spirit of Old Testament Jewish Sabbath-keeping, we have a fine illustration in the ninety-second Psalm, headed, ‘A psalm for the Sabbath day.’ The whole song is replete with festive gladness. Again, we have a description of the true spirit of Jewish Sabbath-keeping in Isa. 58:13-14. There we see that what our Sadducees represent as a degrading bondage the true Old Testament Israel called ‘a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable,’ enabling them to ‘delight themselves in the Lord’ and to ‘feed on the heritage of Jacob their father,’ i.e., on God’s redeeming love.

(3.) He declared that ‘the Sabbath was made for man.’ God might have made man, like the other rational creatures, so as to be naturally incapable of receiving the Sabbath and the family; or, having made him as He has made him, He might not have given him these two institutions, which his actual constitution as man requires for the fullness of his completed well-being. And therefore, in first making man such as to be naturally susceptible of the law, and then building the law on the basis of the human constitution, the Creator has bestowed on mankind a signal gift of the tender mercy which extends over all His works. They, therefore, who break the Sabbath law are guilty of treading under foot, in swinish grossness of ingratitude and ignorance, a precious jewel, which should be all the more dearly prized by man because it is given to man alone.

But further, the Saviour teaches that the Sabbath was made, not merely for Jew, the man in exceptional circumstances, but ‘for man,’ the man as such, i.e., for all men in all ages and lands. From this it follows that, both as a law to rule man’s life and as a boon to bless it, God has made the Sabbath for all nations and ages. There must therefore be a Sabbath in the New Testament Church. But where is this Sabbath in the New Testament Church? It is, and can be, only in the Lord’s Day; for this is the only festival which either we or our adversaries recognise as being divinely instituted for the Church of the new dispensation. So that it is not merely from ancestral tradition, nor merely from our own theological speculation, but really from the lips of Christ, that we have received the truth that the New Testament Lord’s Day is the ‘Christian Sabbath.’ And if this Lord’s Day be the Christian Sabbath, it is thus ‘one whole day in seven,’ set apart from the ordinary purposes of human life, and consecrated, with all due regard to emergent claims of ‘necessity and mercy,’ to religious rest.

(4.) He declared that He, as ‘the Son of Man, is lord also of the Sabbath.’ He has restored this among other things which constituted man’s natural heritage of blessing forfeited by sin. And therefore He claims a ‘propriety in’ or lordship over the Sabbath, and asserts and seals the claim by transposing the resting day to the week’s beginning from its end, and giving to this Christian Sabbath the name of ‘the Lord’s Day.’

Here we see the truth that He, and He alone, has competent authority to effect that transposition. No human authority, of prince, or priest, or people, — no mere creature, — has power of right to alter even the form of a God-given law or institution. But the Son of Man, in the case now before us, has that power of right. What the Sabbath law requires in its substance is the consecration of one day in seven. Which day in seven shall be consecrated, is merely a question of form. And this question of form, not determined by the substance of the Sabbath law, falls to be determined by the positive institution of Him who is the ‘Lord of the Sabbath.’

Goto: II. The Sabbath Question: Morality of the Decalogue in General


James MacGregor (1830-1894) trained for the ministry under William Cunningham, whom he regarded as Scotland’s master theologian. After MacGregor had been a pastor for ten years, he was called in 1868 to the chair of systematic theology at the Free Church College, Edinburgh, in succession to James Buchanan. He responded to rising errors of his day by writing in defense of the Sabbath and against Amyrauldianism. Illness forced him to migrate to New Zealand in 1881, where he was again the pastor of a church, and published expositions of the confessional teaching about election and eternal punishment. The following material is excerpted from his book, The Sabbath Question, Historical, Scriptural, and Practical (Edinburgh 1866)