Is the Sabbath Normative?

This post is the second part of a discussion on whether Jesus actually broke the Old Testament Law by healing on the Sabbath. This question was raised in an online argument, which is largely irrelevant to history, but which gives opportunity for worthwhile consideration of the nature of Law, the person of Christ, and, in particular, the place of Sabbath in the life of the contemporary believer.

To recap, the previous post argues that Jesus did not sin, that he did heal on the Sabbath, that this was disliked by religious leaders of his day, and that the OT Law has three divisions: civil, ceremonial, and moral.

Is the Sabbath in Play?

If the Decalogue is still morally normative, then the practice of Sabbath is still in play. The question, then, is how to practice the Sabbath in our contemporary context.

One school of thought believes that Sabbath is still necessary, but that the principle was fulfilled in Christ, so that Sabbath for Christians is a spiritual rest in Christ. This is a biblical concept, seen clearly in Hebrews 4. In particular, verses 9 and 10 declare, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Some who hold this view believe that the day of rest in the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ, and therefore spiritualize present application. Although he does not argue for only a spiritualization of the Sabbath, J. D. Greear provides a helpful explanation of the fulfillment of the Sabbath in Christ in this blog.

There are some people, like Seventh Day Adventists, who take a literalist approach to Sabbath and have their worship services on Saturday. This is a consistent application, but it isn’t clear that such a literal approach is necessary. In fact, if we accept the tripartite division of the law described above, then it would seem that some of the particulars of the practice of Sabbath fall into the categories of civil and ceremonial, instead of moral law.

A third category, including much of the Reformed tradition, believe that the Sabbath is still in play and that we fulfill it largely through rest on Sunday, as a Christianized analogy of the Old Testament practices. This is witnessed in the history of the United States through the various Blue Laws. A famous example of this method of practicing Sabbath is found in Eric Liddell’s refusal to run a race on Sunday.

Synthesis

All of these three methods of applying the Sabbath have something to contribute to a robust practice of Sabbath for contemporary Christians. The literalist approach affirms the truthfulness of God’s word. Though we may argue about the actual practice, which deviates from traditional Christian practice and misses the significance of the Sunday resurrection, we can respect the importance of following God’s law.

The spiritual fulfillment is a valuable perspective for Christians because it is true. The practice of Sabbath was intended, in part, to point forward to the future rest that we will enter into by Christ’s blood, when the whole cosmos is redeemed and the toil from the curse (Gen 3:17-19) has been removed. At that time, though we will still work, we will have been glorified, creation will have been renewed, (Romans 8:18-25) and we will enter into the ultimate Sabbath rest. It remains to see whether that spiritual fulfillment eliminates any present practice of the principle of Sabbath.

The third approach, which entails the rigorous of customs adapted to contemporary contexts is good because it highlights the importance of rest, encourages corporate worship, and is an earnest attempt to honor God. At the same time, such an approach runs afoul of Christ’s own interpretation and risks becoming a burden to the people it is intended to help.

A fourth approach to the Sabbath argues, which I have not introduced before, treats the whole of the Old Testament as edifying, but believes that all forms of the Law were fulfilled by Christ (Matt 5:17). That argument is worth carrying, but would push this post beyond the current length. I will, however, offer a few simple objectives: first, those who hold this position generally create their own laws (no movies, no pants for women, ties on Sunday) to substitute for the Old Testament Laws, which put them in a worse position; second, this approach has to deal with the odd fact that most of the Decalogue is reaffirmed explicitly in the New Testament; third, this view raises significant questions about the nature of revelation in the Old Testament, specifically with the close connection between Jesus and the Old Testament (Luke 24:27).

A fifth approach to Sabbath argues that the Decalogue is the moral law and is in play, but that the fourth commandment no longer applies because Jesus didn’t practice it in the passages discussed above. This is consistent with how most contemporary Evangelicals treat the Decalogue, whether or not they can formulate that perspective fully. Not lying is good, but Sabbath is unnecessary. This approach is exegetically inconsistent and seems to be argued more for convenience than otherwise.

Practicing Sabbath

Each of the first three interpretations is helpful, but I believe they each fall short for one reason or another. The fourth and fifth interpretations are less helpful, and I believe create more exegetical problems than they solve.

If we accept that the Decalogue is the moral law, and it reflects the immutable character of our Holy God, then we should see that it is still in play. The question is how to apply it.

In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus shows that practicing Sabbath was not fundamentally about inactivity. Rather, he argues that doing good work is explicitly lawful (v. 12). Note that he does not argue that the law does not apply, but that doing God honoring work on the Sabbath is a moral positive. There is no category for moral neutrality, either an action is sinful or morally praiseworthy.

Instead, the Sabbath is intended to provide a rest from economic activity during the week, which helps to show our trust in God’s goodness and provision. This is consistent with the statement in the Exodus 20:8-11. Jesus’ own interpretation undermines a strictly literalistic understanding of these verses. Also, considering the expositions of the Sabbath, which focus on giving the land a rest in an agrarian context, it seems that the emphasis is more on stopping ceaseless striving than on a particular form of inactivity. For example, in Exodus 23:10-12, Moses specifically records the purpose of Sabbath being for the provision of the poor and the wild beasts, as well as the refreshment of economic actors.

It is no accident that immediately preceding Jesus’ Sabbath healing in Matthew 12, he calls his hearers into his rest:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

Note that the rest Jesus proposes entails work—the image of a yoke could mean little else. This is not the absence of activity, but the redirection of activity to restorative purposes. This often includes working at rest, but not a legalistic rest, the fulfillment of which entails greater effort than simply continuing to work for economic gain. In one sense, Jesus is calling people into a spiritual Sabbath, since they can rest in the fulfillment of the ceremonial law through his future propitiation. However, it is not clear that Jesus is alleviating any regular practice of literal rest as an expectation of a holy life.

Mark’s Gospel provides a slightly different telling of the Matthew 12 account in the second chapter. In Jesus’ explanation of David and his men eating the showbread, contrary to the ceremonial law, Jesus illuminates that the purpose of Sabbath, when he says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27)

In one sense this is entirely true in a spiritual sense. The spiritual rest of Hebrews 4 is a great blessing for humans. In another sense, however, a non-legalistic practice of Sabbath is needed now more than ever.

Jesus’ explanation of the blessing of Sabbath for humans ties closely to the ideas in Exodus 23:12, which is a refreshing rest from economic activity. If anything, Christ’s fulfillment of the law was designed to bring a greater blessing to the elect. He fulfilled the ceremonial law so that we can trust in his once and for all sacrifice for sin (Cf. Heb 10:1-18). This is a great blessing. But if the practice of Sabbath rest, particularly in the form of resting from economic activity, is intended as a blessing, then we would expect this to be amplified rather than diminished. Therefore, while the civil and ceremonial trappings of the Sabbath may no longer apply, with their limitations to a single day of rest each week, we should look for our rest to be more varied and greater.

A full consideration of the application of Sabbath would take much more space (and would reveal how terrible I am at this myself), but likely it includes a regular pattern of participation in worship, taking vacations, not being perpetually online, carving out time for physical fitness, prioritizing family activity over work, and other active, but redemptive practices. It is still likely to include simply resting and doing quiet activities, or at least activities that are refreshing to our bodies and our souls, and that differ from our daily economic toil.

Did Jesus Violate the OT Law?

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A recent argument online has raised an important question about the relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament Law, and in particular the Sabbath. I’ll leave the background for interested readers to discover, but the main point that piqued my interest was the argument by some that Jesus violated the Old Testament Law when he healed on the Sabbath. (The whole argument is such a mishmash of bad exegesis, heresy, and improper inference from both sides that it isn’t worth diving into.)

The simple answer is “no.” If Jesus had violated the Old Testament Law, then he would have sinned and would not have been our Messiah. We needed a blemishless sacrifice for our own sin, which only Jesus—who is very God and very man—could provide.

Those who are arguing that Jesus violated the Moral Law of the Old Testament are implicitly arguing that Jesus sinned against God. If we accept the account of the author of Hebrews, then we know that Jesus did not sin (Heb 4:15). Or, perhaps, the Paul’s argument toward that same end might encourage us to accept that point (1 Cor 5:21). If one disagrees with the testimony of Scripture and argues that Jesus did, in fact, sin, then the rest of this argument doesn’t matter because the only real authority for theology is that person’s opinion (or whatever other source he/she deems to be, in his/her opinion worthy of the highest authority).

For those of you with me, we’ve established that Jesus did not sin.

However, Jesus did not follow the customs of the people of his day relating to the observation of Sabbath. This was a major point of contention between the religious authorities of the day and him.

Jesus on the Sabbath

For example, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in Matt 12:8-14 right after he explains why his disciples’ eating of gleaned grain was not a violation of the Sabbath (vv. 1-8). This made the Pharisees pretty mad, likely because he both undermined their legalistic hegemony (vv. 11-12) and because he implies that he is Messiah (v. 8).

There are other examples, as well.

Significantly, in John 5, Jesus heals a man at the pool of Bethesda on a Saturday. This leads to a full-scale decision to kill him. John is much more explicit about the complaint of the Pharisees: “This is why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making him equal to God.” (v. 18)

This passage is important because it states explicitly that Jesus broke the Sabbath.

At this point, some might think my argument scuttled. If we read absolutely literally, then John says that Jesus broke the Sabbath. Some infer that a) some portions of the OT Law are more important than others, so Jesus didn’t sin by violating a portion of the Law; b) Jesus sinned (see above); c) the Sabbath Law was not in play for Jesus.

Options a) and c) are in play for orthodox Christians, but I don’t think either one is correct.

Although John 5:18 states that Jesus was “breaking the Sabbath,” we can recognize that John is describing the perspective of the Pharisees. When John is speaking from his own perspective he writes that Jesus “was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 17). In contrast, the Pharisees see Jesus’ good works as breaking the Sabbath and “making himself equal with God.” (v. 18) Of the four gospel writers, John is the clearest about announcing Jesus’ deity, so there is little question that he is not actually accusing Jesus of violating the Old Testament Law. He was violating the imposed, unbiblical norms of his day, which had been imposed on the Jews by their religious leaders in order to ensure they didn’t violate the real Law.

The Nature of the Law

There is a solid rabbinic tradition of a tripartite division of the Law in the Old Testament. This division has been largely recognized through Church History, though it is certainly not a universally held view.

Generally, the Old Testament Laws tend to be divided into the Civil, the Ceremonial, and the Moral Law. Civil laws tend to be those laws of the Old Testament that focus on the political and social administration of the people of Israel. These include the casuistic limitations on punishments for idolaters, adulterers, slavers, etc. Such laws, like the various property laws, are helpful in understanding the principles of justice, but our building codes do not require a parapet around the roof because it is no longer technologically or culturally necessary and because the nation of Israel, as a theocracy constituted in the Old Testament is no longer extant. Occasionally, actual theonomists arise (not just faithful people seeking justice in society that doesn’t match the worldview of the vogue “secular” culture) that try to enforce parts of the civil law, but it rarely goes far and is inconsistent with the way Christianity has interpreted the use of the OT Law.

The second category of Old Testament Law is the ceremonial law. These are laws related to the worship of the Israelites, including the various offerings, sacrifices, cleansings, and festivals. Even orthodox Jews do not practice this portion of the Law fully, because they have no temple in which to conduct the various sacrifices. For Christians, it is this portion of the Law that we generally understand to have been fulfilled by Christ (cf. Matt 5:17).

The third category of the Law is the moral law. These are contained in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. According to the Reformed tradition, this portion of the Law is still in play for several reasons. First, it is the only portion of the Law that was actually written by God himself. (Ex 31:18) Second, the Decalogue is considered to reflect the character of God. This is the resolution to the famous Euthyphro dilemma of philosophy. God’s Law is good not by declaration of God or by pre-existence morally prior to God, but because it reflects the character of a good God. Third, most of the Ten Commandments are restated in the New Testament explicitly, and the entirety of them seem to be reaffirmed to Christ when he summarizes them in the first and second greatest commandments. (cf. Matt 22:34-40) The first greatest commandment is generally considered to summarize the first tablet of the Decalogue, with the second summarizing the latter portion of the Decalogue. Those who hold this position generally argue that the civil and ceremonial law are temporal and geographically bound applications of the moral law.

There are certainly objections to this approach to the Law, but that is a topic for another day.

More Gospel, Please

“A little more gospel, please, sir.”

That’s what we should say all day, every day. But we don’t.

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We sometimes forget that the gospel is not the beginning of the Christian journey, but the sum of the Christian journey.

My tendency—which is one that I observe among other believers, too—is to simplify the gospel to a transactional event where I was gloriously converted from sinner to saint by divine grace through personal faith in the finished, atoning work of Jesus Christ. This is a true account of a portion of the gospel, but it is not the whole of the good news.

An individual’s experience of the gospel begins with the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but it ends…well, it never ends. That last bit is as much a part of the good news—the gospel—as the original forgiveness of sins. Both are vital to experiencing a joyful Christian life.

We tend to remember the initial transaction and forget our need for a solid dose of the gospel each and every day. Those who know Christ personally have been saved (Eph 2:8-9), are being saved (1 Cor 1:18), and also will be saved (Rom 5:9).

What exactly does that mean?

It is clear from Scripture that the ongoing and future nature of salvation is not dependent upon our works—whether good, mediocre, or bad.

Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul makes it clear that our works do not contribute to our salvation (Eph 2:8-9) even though we are called to good works because of our salvation (Eph 2:10). This is why James wrote that “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-20) The two authors are not disagreeing, but they are making it clear that the gospel seed planted into our souls when we were saved will produce good fruit if it really took root.

Lest I be accused of commending salvation by works, we should note that this helps explain why Jesus seems particularly concerned with the fruit of religious belief. John records Christ’s teaching on this in the 15th chapter of his Gospel, where Christ explains that the sign of conversion—the evidence of the work of the gospel in the lives of the converted—is bearing good fruit abundantly.

It’s that same passage that reminds us that we need more gospel. Jesus reminds his listeners, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear the fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (John 15:3-4)

We need more gospel. We need to abide in Christ. We need to be transformed by the ongoing renewal of our minds, which occurs through intake of God’s special revelation in Scripture and a continual mindfulness of our dependence upon the gospel.

We are priests and kings in God’s kingdom. Because we have been undeservedly granted that status, we should be willing to stand as beggars before him to plead, “Please sir, may I have some more.”

When We Forget Salvation

It's easy sometimes to forget the joy of salvation. When life piles on and we feel tired, lonely, and discouraged it can lead us to lose sight of the hope in our hearts that is a gift from God. Sometimes it takes hearing someone's story of God's radical transformation to reawaken the flame of faith in our hearts.

The embedded video is a the story of one woman who came to faith in Christ. Listen to the account of someone who made bad choices, was victimized, and eventually saved by the power of Christ. Hear the tale of someone who responded to a message she desperately needed to hear with faith. Trust me, it's worth a few minutes of your time.

The Joy of Salvation

King David wrote Psalm 51 in a time of spiritual darkness after he had committed adultery and caused the death one of his faithful servants. In that song of repentance, David writes,

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit. (Ps. 51:10-12)

The joy of salvation. It's so easy to lose when the world seems to be dark, our sin is heavy, or hope dims. But the joy of salvation should overwhelm us. It should new every morning. We need to remember that redemption is possible, and that through the blood of Christ it has been effected for those who believe. This is a powerful truth. It should animate us and fill us with an overwhelming joy. 

Used by CC License. Breaking Dawn by John Mcsporran.  http://ow.ly/yIAZ3005yzt

Used by CC License. Breaking Dawn by John Mcsporran. http://ow.ly/yIAZ3005yzt

The Gospel of Christmas

Christmas is not about presents. It isn’t about family gatherings, trees, human love, happiness, or world peace.

Christmas is about the incarnation of God himself. It is, therefore, about the renewal of all of creation.

Used unaltered by creative commons license: http://ow.ly/Whq4d 

Used unaltered by creative commons license: http://ow.ly/Whq4d 

There is nothing wrong with celebrating with family, having a tree, showing love, being happy, or striving toward peace. In many ways these things point toward the renewal of all creation.

However, Christmas is not merely about these things, but about the rich abundance that lies behind these things.

Christmas is about the gospel. The gospel made real, physical, tangible, and complete.

The Christmas Gospel

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth through his spoken word. He made everything from nothing and at the end of his flurry of creative acts, he declared it all very good.

He even made two humans to be like him, and to represent him in miniature on the earth. They were made in his very image.

However, that didn’t last very long because the first humans, Adam and Eve, messed it up by disobeying the one rule that God had given them. They didn’t take God at his word; instead they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

As a result, God sent death into the world. Adam and Eve would surely die. So would all of their children and their children’s children.

God also cursed the ground to remind all humans that things aren’t the way they were supposed to be. Thorns, thistles, and other weeds make the process of making a living from the earth harder. They remind us of what is wrong with the world. They keep us hoping for something better that is to come.

The world got a glimpse of that better something a few thousand years ago in the form of a human child born in unlikely circumstances. That child was Jesus, God’s anointed one, and the Word of God himself.

The one who had created all things and who holds all things together stepped down into creation to become part of it and bear the curse of the whole creation to set it free from the penalty of sin.

According to Athanasius,


He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.


And in wiping away the effects of the curse from humans, Jesus also loosed the creation from the effects of sin.

Thus, “the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

This hasn’t yet taken effect in full.

Romans 8:19-23 tells us:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

The Christmas story is a historical account of how God made possible the redemption of all things from the effects of human sin. Both Luke and Matthew tell us what happened in a dusty Middle Eastern town two millennia ago, but their accounts also point beyond the details of the story to the hope that should invigorate our celebration.

Conclusion

Enjoy this Christmas. Enjoy the cookies, candy canes, ugly sweaters, and weird relatives. Enjoy the toys, the tinsel, and the many cultural accretions that have accumulated around the day.

Enjoy these things all the more because they point toward the greater hope we have in the coming renewal of all creation because Christ’s incarnation made possible the redemption of all things from the effects of sin.

The Ignorance is Astounding

Recently multiple news outlets have reported on Dr. Ben Carson's theory that the Egyptian Pyramids were used for grain silos. 

There is little reason to give credence to Carson's theory, which is an extreme minority position. All the archaeological evidence seems to point toward the pyramids being built as monuments to rulers. In a presidential election, it's fine to point out the weird ideas of people that have put themselves on display.

What is inexcusable, however, is the fact that multiple news outlets are reporting that Carson's theory is drawn directly from the book of Genesis. 

In their original report (which may be updated any time now) Forbes wrote:

When I found this, I wondered if the ignorance was isolated. However, when I looked at the illustrious reporting of CNN, I found that while their article was correct, the original report required a correction:

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the Book of Genesis refers to Joseph building pyramids to store grain. It refers only to Joseph storing large amounts of grain.

I stopped looking at two sources. Most likely the error was in the original news service story that the other outlets subscribe to.

I'm glad that CNN caught the mistake. However, it is telling that the original authors of the article was so ignorant of Scripture that he or she believed that Genesis talks about using the pyramids for grain storage. This also made it through the editorial process.

It isn't like this is information buried in someone's diary from the 17th century in an obscure monastery library in the Alps. No, this is information that is readily available online in multiple languages and versions. The team of individuals responsible for these reports lacks a basic literacy in Scripture, and yet was too lazy to take a few minutes to proof their information.

Remember this artifact as you read news article reporting on what people are supposed to believe and have said. While one example does not prove that all such reporting is bad, it does give an indication that the authors and editors may be well out of their depth.

Application for Christians

Christians should also recognize the significance of this error. We assume an awful lot of baseline knowledge when we talk to each other and to others. If I asked a group of school age kids at most local churches if Joseph had stored grain in the pyramids they would have given me an incredulous look. Yet, here is a group of adults so unfamiliar with Scripture that they could make such a blatant gaffe in published work.

Think about that when you present the gospel to someone. You can't assume they know the background. And, really, the notion of the substitutionary atonement is pretty crazy apart from the background of Scripture and an understanding of the Ancient Near Eastern culture of the Hebrews. It probably takes more explaining than what has been expected in previous decades.

We are no longer in a culture where we can assume the basics of the gospel. The ignorance is astounding. However, ignorance is not a sin. 

The solution to ignorance is information. This means that we need to get the gospel message out in a way that is comprehensive and intelligible. We can't afford to assume that anyone knows the rest of the story. Likely they have never actually heard it told well at all.