Old Testament Laws: Is Leviticus 23:3 a Command to Have Worship Services on the Weekly Sabbath?


We read the following command from Jesus in Luke 5:14, when he healed someone: “Show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” If one assumed that Jesus’ teaching applied to all people at all times, it could be claimed that this passage is “proof” telling Christians they must offer the proper Mosaic sacrifice and appear before a Jewish priest.

However, we know that Luke 5:14 is not a command for us to offer sacrifices. How do we know this? It is because the total witness of the New Testament makes it clear that such sacrifices applied only to Israelites and Jews under the Mosaic old covenant. This illustrates the folly of isolating a verse from its context. We need to examine both the verse in question and the larger context of the Bible. We must not start with advance assumptions.

Articles About the Sabbath

Let us look at whether Christians must attend “holy convocations” on the Sabbath. If we are to understand what Leviticus 23:3 might mean in its context, we have to know something about the manner of communal worship in Israel under the old covenant. The national corporate worship had to occur in the place that God designated as a central worship site. Originally, this was at the Tabernacle, and after Solomon’s time, at the Temple in Jerusalem.

We can see an explicit instruction about the place to worship in Deuteronomy: “You are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go…” (12:4). See also verses 11, 14, 17-18, and 26. This command to worship only at a designated location is also seen in Deuteronomy 16, which lists the annual festivals. See verses 5, 7, 11, and 16, among others.

The reasons for this were numerous. One consideration was that Israel should not alter the worship format and purpose that God had given the nation; otherwise they would easily lapse into worship that was directed to pagan deities. We can see how this happened in the wilderness when Moses left the people to receive the stone tablets (Exodus 32), and when Israel broke politically from Judah and set up its own religious system, including new worship formats, places and times (1 Kings 12:25-33).

What made Sabbath “holy”

The essence of Sabbath-keeping was physical rest. In Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15, the Sabbath command specifies rest from labor as the way to keep the day “holy.” There is no mention of going to a worship service each Sabbath. Other passages in the Old Testament also define the Sabbath by rest, not by attendance at worship services. See Exodus 31:12-17, Numbers 15:32, Nehemiah 13:15-22 and Jeremiah 17:19-27. The latter two passages, though they refer to Jerusalem, do not mention anything about failure to attend worship services or “sacred assemblies,” but only work on the Sabbath as a desecration of this day.

An interesting study is to look up the word “Sabbath” in a concordance, find all the Old Testament references and then read those passages to see how this day was kept “holy.” The conclusion will be that rest from labor is what made the Sabbath sacred time, not attendance at a worship service. Most Israelites lived too far from the tabernacle to attend a worship service every Sabbath – and there is no evidence in the Old Testament that they did. And the law did not allow them to assemble anywhere else for worship. Nor do we find commands even for people near the Tabernacle that they had to gather for worship. The Sabbath was kept at home, by resting.

There is no mention in Old Testament passages that attending a worship service on the Sabbath is a way of keeping this day holy. The way the Sabbath was sanctified, made holy or set apart as sacred was through physical rest from labor. All the Old Testament references to Sabbath observance in Israel speak to this point. There is no Old Testament theology of weekly Sabbath holiness that centers around attendance at “holy convocations.”

It would be strange, then, to have one phrase in Leviticus 23:3 refer to a weekly worship service commanded for all Israel, and then claim that this was just as important as resting as a way to keep the Sabbath. It would be a mistake to assume such a teaching from a single and vague phrase in one verse when the entire witness of the Old Testament does not mention worship service attendance in conjunction with the Sabbath.

There is no indication in Scripture of Israelites going to worship services of one kind or another in their local towns and villages. They could travel to worship services at the Tabernacle only for the annual festivals.

Synagogue system

One might point to the New Testament and say, “But Jesus and Paul attended the synagogue on the Sabbath. Doesn’t this indicate that worship services were an essential part of God’s command to keep the Sabbath holy?”

So far as we know from Scripture or Jewish history, there was no national system of Sabbath-day worship sites or places of communal instruction throughout Israel’s history in the Promised Land up to the captivity of Judah in the 530s B.C. and the return of a remnant to Judea a few decades years later. There were no synagogues before the exile; there were no local meeting places in Israel before the exile, because there was no command for weekly meetings.

The synagogue system allowed Jews to meet together in local towns and villages for prayer, the reading of the Holy Scriptures and for fellowship. The synagogue became a miniature sanctuary to replace the loss of the Jerusalem Temple. We do not know when the synagogue system originated. Neither the Old or New Testaments provide any information about this development. It is generally believed that the synagogue system developed when worship at the Temple in Jerusalem became impossible and when Jews were dispersed into other nations.

Jews added the synagogue worship system, not based on biblical command, but on a sociological need, due to the loss of the Temple and the scattering of the people far away from the Promised Land. Nowhere in the Old Testament will you find a command to have local worship sites.

There wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with the Jews setting up synagogues. They became an important center of fellowship and instruction in the Jewish faith. The New Testament does not condemn the practice; it is taken for granted. It is nowhere commanded.

Regarding the day on which Jews had their worship service, it’s natural that it should occur on the Sabbath. The people worked the other six days and the Sabbath was a good time for them to meet. But there is no biblical command to set up local worship sites and to make the weekly Sabbath “holy convocations.” The Old Testament does not indicate that the Sabbath is kept holy through a meeting. Rather, it was kept as holy through rest.

Leviticus 23:3

Let us look at Leviticus 23:3 directly: “There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord.” The verse emphasizes rest.

Since the passage is about resting and not working, it seems that the expression “day of sacred assembly” is a parallel to “Sabbath to the Lord” and refers not so much to official communal worship on the Sabbath but to the day itself as being a “sacred assembly.”

The phrase “day of sacred assembly” can be understood as a “sacred day of celebration” or a “sacred occasion,” as well as a “sacred assembly” or convocation. The weekly Sabbath, as well as the annual festivals, were occasions to worship and praise God for the abundance of his physical blessings and for saving Israel from bondage in Egypt. But this worship and praise could be given to God in the Israelites’ participation in rest itself (thus experiencing the blessings of Yahweh through rest), as well as in contemplation and conversation at home.

By resting from their labor and self-interests on the weekly Sabbath, the Israelites were presenting themselves before God through rest. Resting was a way of being in the presence of God and fulfilling his sacred purpose. The only people who were commanded to come to the Temple for worship were the Levites and priests. On behalf of the entire nation, they performed
the prescribed ceremonies. There was no command for people to watch them, or for them to teach the people. It was simply not possible for very many people to be there.

The concept of “rest” is important in Scripture, and it has a deep spiritual meaning for Christians. As Christians, we understand that our rest is in Christ, who is our Sabbath. When we rest spiritually in Christ, we present ourselves as the people of God before his presence in continuous sacred assembly. We are always the church, in his presence every day of the week, not just one.

In conclusion, for most Israelites, the Sabbath was a day to rest at home, not a day to travel long distances and attend a worship service. The annual harvest festivals were the time for Israelites to enjoy communal worship and fellowship. Here is what the Expositor’s Bible Commentary (volume 2, page 623) says about Leviticus 23:3:

There is an emphasis here that the Israelite rested at home. There were special offerings given in the tabernacle (e.g., a double burnt offering), but the ordinary Israelite and his whole family rested. Presumably here was an opportunity for family worship and instruction in the law of God, but this is not specifically enjoined. What a boon a weekly rest must have been to the ancient laborer and farmer in his weary round of toil!

As did the Jews in their synagogue system, Christians find that regular fellowship and communal instruction is an important foundation of their religious life. As Christians, we are free to meet together at any time of the day, any day of the week, and any season of the year. We are not limited to meeting on just one day, since no day has been specifically set aside by God for Christian fellowship and worship. We are always in the presence of God and worship him continually because he and Christ reside in us through the indwelling Holy Spirit. At the same time, we can gather weekly and seasonally in small groups or in larger communal situations to praise God, to recall Christ’s work of salvation and to fellowship in the Spirit.

Author: Paul Kroll

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