Kingdom Living: Sabbath and living heart of the Sabbath
The Seventh Day
Many people assume that the word ‘Sabbath’ is first mentioned in Genesis, but it is not. Genesis speaks of the seventh day and not the Sabbath, although it will develop into the Sabbath. Think of the seventh day as a small sapling in a pot and the Sabbath as a massive Oak tree that has grown from the sapling and you get the idea.
One of the first mentions of the seventh day in Genesis is found in Genesis 2:3 where we read:
“And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
The Hebrew word for ‘day’ is ‘yom’ and speaks of a 24-hour solar day, or the daylight portion of those hours. On each of the days prior to the seventh day we read, “and it was very good, and there was evening and there was morning” (Gen 1:5, 8,13,19,23,31) yet the seventh day is spoken of in a different way. On the seventh day we read “God rested” (Gen 2:2) from the work of creation in that He turned from this to work of a different nature. We also read that God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. What this means is that the seventh day was set apart as special.
On the seventh day God rested from this work of creation, yet this does not mean that He was inactive. In six days the world was created for man and on the seventh day God gave His attention to being with man. When God rested on the seventh day He did not sit around and do nothing, He engaged with Man and even when Man fell into sin, God could still reach out to him through an awesome work of redemption spoken of within the unity of Trinity before the world began.
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” 1 Peter 1:18-20
God has always been about His work which is the outworking of the Trinitarian love in space and time for the benefit of man. As Jesus once said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." (John 5:17). We may struggle and go through difficult periods in our lives but God is always with those who call out to Him; He never takes a day off.
The sapling is going to grow into the Oak tree because God is a God of grace, mercy and extraordinary love that does not compromise holiness. As it ‘grows’ we see care and concern for the rebel and a call for man to come out of captivity and condemnation into the position of sons and daughters of the living God. In this respect, we see that the Sabbath was made for man and in some ways speaks of how the Kingdom of God reaches into what has become our world of violence and decay; of how light pierces into darkness.
“He who governed the world before I was born shall take care of it likewise when I am dead. My part is to improve the present moment… As Christians we must insist on the dignity of the recipient. Whatever straits the poor and needy are in they are still fellow human beings who are made in the image of God, and all giving must acknowledge this reality.”
Prof Oz Guinness: ‘Doing Well and Doing Good’
The growth of the Sapling: the appearance of the Sabbath
Time moves on and we move past the history of the flood, the Tower of Babel and the incredible way in which God birthed an Israelite from an incredibly dysfunctional family into a top leadership position in Egypt. The centuries continue and we arrive at the time of the Exodus.
God brings Israel out of Egypt, and they eventually enter the desert of Sin (Ex 16:1) but the thinking of Egypt now needs to come out of Israel and trust needs to be birthed into the lives of those who had been abused by the illegitimate kingship of Pharaoh. Israel struggles in the desert and grumbles about a lack of food. In grace and mercy God continues to teach them concerning what He is like and provides quail and bread (Manna: 16:31). It was during this time that we see how the seventh day ‘developed’ into the Sabbath (Ex 31:15) and it all has to do with the One who is the Master of Time and the provider of all blessing. We see this in looking at Manna and how Israel was told to collect it.
Manna was a small round food substance that was as fine as frost (Ex 16:14), it looked like white coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey (Ex 16:31). The manna appeared on the ground every morning and the Israelites were allowed to take as much as they needed for the day. They were told that they could not take more manna on one day as a means of not having to go out on the next day. When some of them disobeyed this command they found that the manna had rotted and was full of maggots. However, on the sixth day they were allowed to collect a double portion of manna which would mean they could rest on the seventh day (Exodus 16:22-23). In this way Israel was clearly being called to rest and recognise that they could do so because God was the provider of all blessing. This then is where we read of the seventh day being called the Sabbath for the first time.
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates”
In Israel’s wilderness wanderings she was called to remember that it was God who brought her out of Egypt and provided her with all she needed in order to live. She was also called to show how she recognised this in the way she treated all of those around her, even the foreigner. In a very real way the Sabbath is now growing into a picture of great blessing; man, who deserves nothing, can receive everything by way of grace and mercy alone.
“The Sabbath not only pointed to God’s creative pattern and purpose but was also a memorial of His redemptive activity in delivering His people from Egypt.”
D. Carson (Ed) in, ‘From Sabbath Day to Lord’s Day’, p 345
The Sabbath is a sign of the covenant
“The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites for ever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested.'"
Israel was also called to observe the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant (Ex 31:16-17), which spoke of the strong binding relationship that God had forged with His people through grace alone.
On one occasion, when Israel wandered from God and started reinterpreting what He said, God challenged them to remember that He was the Creator. He did this by by effectively saying, “If you are so powerful see if you can break my covenant with the way and night so that they no longer appear at their appointed times” (Jeremiah 33:2-21). In speaking like this, God is revealing that His plan and purpose cannot be thwarted, no matter the rebellion and lawlessness of man. God’s love is not tainted, stained, or weakened by our failing and the world will continue until God brings down the curtain, so to speak.
God chooses to reach out to man
God has chosen to enter into a relationship with us, and has provided this world as the place in which that relationship can take place and develop, although this world is not, nor ever was intended to be, man’s final destination. Despite our fall into sin and continual failings, God has remained faithful and calls us to rest in His finished work through Jesus.
In resting we are called to recognise that time belongs to Him. We occupy a small space in time, but we do not own time. We cannot bottle it up and keep an hour from a Monday, or a few minutes from a Tuesday, in order to work with it later in the week. We may occupy a portion of space in time, yet it is His time and we are His. He is the Master of time and if we learn the habit of committing our lives to Him each day, He will lead and we will find greater freedom of thought in all we do.
This freedom is underlined in the second rendition of the 10 commandments found in Deuteronomy 5:15 where an additional point is made concerning the Sabbath. The addition is as follows: -
“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
The Sabbath is about a cessation of one’s own activities in order to focus and feed on the work of another, and therefore continually carries with it the idea of turning back to the covenant. It speaks of resting in the work of a Father who loves us and wants us to find our security and worth in Him as much-loved sons and daughters. However, by the time of Jesus many religious people saw the Sabbath as little more than making sure no one did anything on the Sabbath at all.
Jesus and the heart of the Sabbath
“Another time he went into the synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, "Stand up in front of everyone." Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. He looked round at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”
Prior to the above incident, Mark mentions the attitude of some Pharisees who challenged Jesus for allowing His disciples to pick and eat corn on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23ff). In doing so, the disciples were (in the mind-set of the Pharisees) breaking numerous Sabbath day laws. The disciples were guilty of working by picking the corn and guilty of threshing it by separating the grain from the husk. They were guilty of winnowing by blowing the husk away and guilty of preparing a meal on the Sabbath. In the attitude of some of the Pharisees, we see what religion in the hands of man does; it makes people see things the wrong way and binds them up in rules and regulations.
In response to the accusations of the Pharisees, Jesus reminds them about David and his men who were harassed and hungry and ate bread that had been consecrated to God. Technically they should not have been allowed to do this, since it was only lawful for the priest to do so, yet God is a God of mercy. The point Jesus was making is that in allowing His disciples to eat, He was simply endorsing what the Sabbath is all about – grace, mercy, sustenance, compassion, support and care – like the grace and mercy shown to David. As Hosea 6:6 reads, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Jesus also points out that He is the Lord of the Sabbath (a Messianic claim) and, as we mentioned earlier, the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.
Care for the whole person
In John 5:1ff we read of Jesus healing a man on a Sabbath day who had been an invalid for 38 years. Then, halfway through the Feast of Tabernacles, He goes into the Temple courts and begins to teach. Jesus reminds those listening to Him that they would circumcise babies on a Sabbath if necessary so that the Law of Moses would not be broken (John 7:22-23). In acting this way they were operating in line with the covenant-living. The purpose of the covenant is to bring man into a place of freedom and wholeness in the Lord which was exactly what He was doing in healing a man on the Sabbath, a day that especially spoke of grace, mercy and blessing.
The Sabbath points to Christ
In the hands of man, the Sabbath had become something which restricted man and placed a burden on his shoulders. Yet the true heart of the Sabbath is all about God’s grace and His desire to reconcile people to Himself. In light of this we see that the Sabbath ultimately points to Christ which is why Paul speaks of it as “a shadow that points to Christ” (Col 2:16-17). Just as the Temple ultimately points to Christ (John 2:19, 1 Cor 12:27, 1 Cor 3:16), so too does the Sabbath. Therefore, to be a Sabbath-keeper we ultimately need to trust Christ as our Lord and Saviour and seek to live as He did in intimate fellowship with the Father and a complete reliance on the leading of the Holy Spirit. In doing so we rest in the finished work of Christ and grow through His loving-kindness.
In Jesus, people who were at the very edges of community life were drawn to a living Saviour and found hope birthed into their lives by the touch of God. Lepers who were not allowed to stand close to anyone found someone who touched and healed them (Luke 5:13), whilst hardened tax collectors found acceptance and forgiveness (Mt 9:9; Lk 19:4). The presence of Jesus brought life back into lifeless courts (Mat 21:14) as hope was birthed into the hearts of those who had previously only found their pockets being emptied as they came to worship. Jesus brought to life the true meaning of the Sabbath which clearly points to Him as the One who leads us into our true rest in Him. He is Immanuel (God with us) and He often turns up in unexpected ways as the following story reveals.
Genelle Guzman-McMIllan was the last survivor of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre to be pulled out of the rubble. She worked on the sixty-fourth floor of the north tower and after the initial impact of the first plane, thought it safe to stay. She didn’t attempt to leave the building until after the second plane hit. She ran down fifty-one flights of stairs and stopped on the 13th floor to remove her shoes. As she did so, the north tower collapsed on top of her. This is what she said about that time:
One hundred and ten floors were coming down around us. I knew I was being buried alive. The noise was deafening…When I woke again I told myself I had to do something. But what could I do? “God, you’ve got to help me!” I prayed. “You’ve got to show me a sign, show me a miracle, give me a second chance. Please save my life!” My eyes were so caked with grime that the tears couldn’t come, but I felt it in my heart. I was talking to God as though he were right there. I told him I was ready to live my life the right way. “Lord, just give me a second chance, and I promise I will do your will”…
“The next day I heard a beep-beep sound like a truck backing up. I called out for help, but there was no response…” Finally someone hollered back: “Hello, is somebody there?” “Yes, help me! My name is Genelle, and I’m on the thirteenth floor,” I cried, not realising how ludicrous the information about my location must have sounded, coming from a pile of rubble…
I could see a bit of daylight coming through a crack, so I stuck my hand through it…I stretched my hand out as far as I could, and this time someone grabbed it. “Genelle, I’ve got you!” You’re going to be all right. My name is Paul, I won’t let go of your hand until they get you out.”
Genelle had prayed to the God she had ignored for most of her life, and he had been there for her. After twenty-seven hours she was pulled out of the rubble and then spent five weeks in the hospital recuperating. Afterwards she tried locating Paul, the man who had held onto her hand until she was rescued. Later, when she asked about him, her rescuers assured her: “There’s no one named Paul on our team…nobody was holding your hand when we were removing the rubble”
Genelle had felt completely calm the moment Paul grabbed her hand. She had believed his repeated assurances that help was on the way and that she would be all right.
When a psychiatrist, probing for symptoms of posttraumatic stress, interviewed her in the hospital, Genelle told him that God above was her psychiatrist. “After all, God was there when I needed him. He had made sure I was found. He had comforted me and given me a new life.”
The Sabbath is a reminder of two worlds, and yet much more. It is a reminder that here in this world we are not on our own; God is with us.
The every-day Sabbath
Although there are some Christians who still observe the Sabbath day as a particular day, in reality, the heart and soul of the Sabbath is found in Christ alone, through whose work we enter into God’s rest (Heb 4:10). This is why the keeping of the fourth commandment is never mentioned once as a command in the New Testament.
As already mentioned, Jesus is the fulfilment of the Sabbath, yet also the Sabbath week, Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee. In seeing this, we need to understand that the heart of the Sabbath was not transferred to the first day of the week (as in our calendar today) but was fulfilled in Christ. So what can we say about the first day of the week?
The first day of the week is associated with Christ’s resurrection and appearance on the first day of the week, which became known as the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10, Acts 20:7, 1 Cor 16:2), commemorating the new creation with Christ as its resurrected head (Col 1:18). The foreshadowing of this (hence first day association) is seen in two of the Festival days in Israel. The first is The Sheaf of Firstfruits where the saving of the sheaf of firstfruits (blessing of the harvest to come) took place on the first day after the Sabbath (Lev 23:11), with Christ’s resurrection being seen by Paul as the fulfilment of this (1 Cor 15:23). The second foreshadowing was the Day of Pentecost (Lev 23:16), which also took place on the morning after the Sabbath as the first day of the new week and is the day when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost (Acts 2:1).
As already mentioned previously, the rest that we find in Christ is not on one day in the week, but a continuing placing of our trust in Him, as we put Him first in all things. This is the rest of on-going redemption and blessing as we grow in Him.
For the Christian, ‘Sabbath keeping’ speaks of an attitude of heart and not a particular day. It speaks of sharing the freedom in Christ that is ours as we reach out to others in the strength and power of the Holy Spirit. This is done in faith, despite feelings of inadequacy that often try to pull us down and hold us back.