Friday, November 27, 2009

Keeping the Sabbath

For the last few Sunday evenings we have sat through an extended description of the Tabernacle. I don't know about you, but there are certain passages of the Bible that I find difficult to take very seriously. The Bible has some wonderful stories. David battling against the Philistines, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Joshua and Jericho, Gideon and the Midianites, Joseph and his brothers, Moses and the bulrushes and Samson and Delilah are but a few of the Old Testament stories that thrill and excite. In the New Testament, Jesus is a great story teller, with The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Importunate Widow all making important spiritual points. But there are bits of the Bible that are frankly boring to most of us. The end of Exodus and most of Leviticus stand in the way of anyone who starts to read the Bible from cover to cover. Ezra and Nehemiah have a lot of lists and difficult names to get over, and some of Paul's letters can be hard on the understanding.

I guess that part of the reason that Leviticus is so hard to get to grips with is all those dietary laws and all that stoning going on that most of us find not really relevant to the twenty first century. Still Paul does say that "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." So we ought to ask ourselves whether we should be taking these instructions more seriously.

We have to remember that the Old Testament law was given to the nation of Israel, not to Christians. The Israelites were given instructions on how to obey and please God (the Ten Commandments, for example), and how to worship God and atone for sin (the sacrificial system). Other laws were to make the Israelites distinct from other nations (the food and clothing rules). But none of the Old Testament law is binding on us today. When Jesus died on the cross, He put an end to the Old Testament law. "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4). "Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law." (Galatians 3:21-25). "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace." (Ephesians 2:13-15)

Instead of the Old Testament law, we are under the law of Christ "Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2), which is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind ... and to love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39). If we obey those two commands, we will be fulfilling all that Christ requires of us. This does not mean the Old Testament law is irrelevant today; these summaries of law come from Deuteronomy and Leviticus!

Nine of the Ten Commandments are clearly repeated in the New Testament (all except the command to observe the Sabbath day). Obviously, if we are loving God, we will not be worshipping false gods or bowing down before idols. If we are loving our neighbors, we will not be murdering them, lying to them, committing adultery against them, or coveting what belongs to them.

It is actually impossible for us to do this perfectly. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus opens up exactly what it means to love God and love your neighbor. Being angry with your brother and looking lustfully at a woman? Who doesn't fall short? The purpose of the Old Testament law is to convict people of our inability to keep the law and point us to our need for Jesus Christ as Savior "What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, Do not covet.”(Romans 7:7) "So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith."(Galatians 3:24).

But what about the Sabbath? When I was young I thought Sunday afternoons were set aside for exercises in boredom. I remember a story about a Scottish Presbyterian pastor, who when he was snowed in and unable to get to the kirk because the road was blocked, took the only option open to him and skated across the loch. After the morning service his Elders called him in and accused him of skating on the Lord's day. He explained that it was his only way or getting there to preach the sermon they had all experienced. They took a moment to confer and then asked him, "Can ye assure us that ye dinnae enjoy it?"

In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul states, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Similarly, Romans 14:5 states, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” It is clear that, for the Christian, Sabbath-keeping is a matter of spiritual freedom, not a command from God. We should be convinced in our own mind, but we don't get saved by keeping the Sabbath.

Jesus often performed miracles on the Sabbath; it was almost as though he was goading the Pharisees with their excessive legalism. He said that the Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath. Various experiments have emphasized our need for regular rest and one day in seven seems about right. We should not confuse the Christian Sunday with the Jewish Sabbath. We spend Sunday in worship, the Jews spent the Sabbath resting.

But the Sabbath does have a special meaning for Christians. The origin of the Sabbath goes back to Creation. After creating the heavens and the earth in six days, God “rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made” (Genesis 2:2). This doesn’t mean that God was tired and needed a rest. He never tires, and His power is not diminished by the hardest work. It simply means that He ceased from His labors.

God used the example of His resting on the seventh day of Creation to establish the principle of the Sabbath day rest for His people. In Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15, God gave the Israelites the fourth of His Ten Commandments. They were to “remember” the Sabbath day and “keep it holy.” One day out of every seven, they were to rest from their labors and give the same day of rest to their servants and animals.

With the establishment of the Old Testament Law, the Jews were constantly “laboring” to make themselves acceptable to God. Their labors included trying to obey thousands of do’s and don’ts of the ceremonial law, the Temple law, the civil law, etc. Of course, they couldn’t possibly keep all those laws, so God provided an array of sin offerings and sacrifices so they could come to Him for forgiveness and restore fellowship with Him, but only temporarily.

But the sacrifices had be repeated over and over again until the coming of Christ and "after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right of God” (Hebrews 10:12). He also ceased from His labors. He rested. So we can see that the Sabbath points forwards to Jesus as our Sabbath rest.

Hebrews chapter 4 is the definitive passage regarding Jesus as our Sabbath rest. Psalm 95 talks about the disobedient ones who "shall never enter my rest". This is a reference to Deuteronomy 1:35 where the LORD declares that those who came out of Egypt, because of their disobedience, should not, except for Joshua and Caleb, enter the promised land; not even Moses, who struck the rock in his anger, would be allowed to enter in. So is the land of Israel the promised rest? No, rather it is a picture of it. For in Hebrews 4:8 the author of the letter writes, "If Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day" - reference to Psalm 95 written much later and warning the Israelites against disobedience like that of their forefathers.

"There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience" (Hebrews 4:9-11) Whereas God rested from the work of creation, the believer ceases his efforts to gain salvation by his own works and rests on the finished work of Christ on the cross.

So the Sabbath points forward to Christ, and like the animal sacrifices that have also ceased because Christ's death has fulfilled them, so the practice of regularly ceasing from work one day in seven has been replaced by the eternal rest that we have in Christ. We do not worship God one day in seven, but like the disciples in Acts 2:46-7, we worship God every day. “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

1 comment:

Brian Koffman said...

As a Jew, the Sabbath, when truly lived, is a little taste of heaven on earth, a day for than rest, but also study, prayer, and reflection. Time with family and friends. Traditionally it was a time set aside from a busy week for intimacy between husband and wife, parent and child, man and G-d. A day to remember there is more to life than getting ahead.

Time may be our most precious commodity, and the Sabbath reminds us to use it wisely.

I very much appreciate perspective from the Christian testament.