On a Vacation Rest

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I was on vacation with my family recently and I witnessed the amazing inefficiency of a state park in New York. Sitting on 65,000 acres in Western New York, Allegany State Park has a lot of standing timber that could be cut for building and rich soil in valleys that could be put to work growing crops. All of that land sitting idle, with only a few cabins and camping sites for the odd tourist.

It was beautiful to see that inefficiency. The politicians who set aside a large swath of land did a good thing.

There’s nothing wrong with putting land to work for the benefit of humans. God gave us the right to use the land, but at the same time we were given the responsibility to care for it well (Gen 2:15). Sometimes, however, the purpose of the created order is to point our minds toward the Creator (Psalm 19:1-4).

There is something majestic about a seeing hillsides covered with trees in an unbroken field of green. It reminded me that the world isn’t all about sidewalks and subdivisions.

Parks are a reminder of the principle of Sabbath. Rest. Beauty. Delight. These are the sorts of things that land set aside for recreation or simply for preservation can remind us of.

In the end, our lives are not ultimately measured by our productivity, but by how we delight God.

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.

Leisure and Spirituality

There have been dozens of books published on the doctrine of work in the past few years. These books are part of a larger resurgence in interest in engaging the culture in all of life, particularly through vocation as Christians seek to break down the sacred/secular divide in their lives.

 On the other hand, there have been few books published on rest, leisure, and recreation from Christian thinkers. Some of those that have picked up the topic of rest, like Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance, tend emphasize opposition to economic systems rather than presenting a comprehensive biblical perspective on the subject. This has given rise to an imbalance which has left some Christians wondering what they should do with their free time, and perhaps whether they should have any.

 As such, Paul Heintzman’s recent book from Baker Academic, Leisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical, and Contemporary Perspectives, is a welcome addition to the topic. This is the most ample, comprehensive presentation of a Christian perspective on leisure I have encountered. I do not expect it to be surpassed in the near future.

 Summary

 In Part One, Heintzman surveys current concepts of leisure as well as the actual state of leisure time in the West. Part Two is an overview of historical understandings of leisure. The reality, Heintzman points out, is many myths about the amount of leisure time people have now compared to other times in history are unfounded or rely on mistaken terms. In fact, the concept that we have more leisure time than previous civilizations is founded largely in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, during which time lower classes spent nearly all their time in work. According to Heintzman’s history, many earlier civilizations had more frequent opportunities for leisure.

 The third part provides a biblical background to leisure. Here Heintzman has carefully outlined the texts in Scripture that relate to leisure, including discussions of the Sabbath, the concept of rest, and touching on other work/recreation topics. It is in this section Heintzman connects the whole Christian life, including leisure, to spirituality. His development of the Sabbath shows that in part, the day of rest was designed to be spiritually refreshing, not just a legalistic observance. Part Four then summarizes scholarship on the doctrine of work, laying out a biblical vision for work in a single chapter.

 Part Five critically explores Christian perspectives on leisure, arguing the concept has often been misunderstood. At times, errors relating to the concept of leisure have led to guilt over any sort of rest and recreation. Heintzman carefully and concisely critiques these errors throughout history. He then seeks to positively articulate a positive ethics of leisure, which he builds off of the Golden Rule. The final section, Part Six, Heintzman unites the concepts of leisure and spirituality. He provides examples of ways that leisure is significant for spiritual growth and points the reader to growth in Christ through those things. Heintzman closes the volume with a summary chapter that illustrates his ideal work-leisure balance through the life of one of his mentors whose life holistically blended a sense of vocation and faithfulness, which allowed smooth transitions between leisure and work.

Analysis

 This is the most thorough book on the concept of leisure available. Heintzman’s historical summaries bring together a number of streams of discussions in a comprehensive fashion. His biblical outline of leisure and rest covers the relevant passages in a manner that is fair to the text. This is a book that is both critical and constructive. In short, this is a reference volume that anyone interested in doing scholarship on work and leisure should own.

 Leisure and Spirituality is an adaptation of Heintzman’s master’s thesis. This explains the thorough scholarship, but it also gives the prose a sometimes ponderous feel to it. I would not provide this volume to the average church member as an introduction to the topic. While never laborious, the book is geared toward an academic audience that is familiar with the concepts. This does not diminish the value of the volume, though it does shape the audience.

 In sum, I recommend this book to those engaged in research on faith and work. Heintzman’s book is a key piece of scholarship that will be significant in the field for the foreseeable future. We should be thankful to Heintzman for his thorough and comprehensive portrait of the connection between leisure and spirituality.

Note: A gratis copy of this volume was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Sabbath as Resistance - A Review

We live in world that never stops moving. There are more options than ever for activities to spend our time. We have access to seemingly unlimited activities, many of which are harmless or even in some way good. Our jobs seem to claim more and more of our lives each week. The special effort for a big project begins to be the every week demand because we, and our employer, has realized if we can make the sacrifice sometimes we can make it all the time. The endless stream of entertainments and opportunities has led many cultural critics to describe Westerners as exhausted, bored, and overworked.

With that motif in the background, Walter Brueggemann’s recent book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, has an interesting appeal. As an Old Testament scholar, an interpretation of the 4th Commandment would seem to be exactly in his realm of expertise. 

The book is a brief 90 pages or so, which makes reading it a sort of Sabbath in itself. This volume actually began its existence as a Bible study series that is available as a download from www.thoughtfulchristian.com for a higher price than this book. However, the original format of the volume explains the construction of the book and some of its characteristics.

Sabbath as Resistance has a brief preface followed by six studies on different aspects of the Sabbath. Brueggemann considers the Sabbath in relation to the first Commandment, and the Sabbath as resistance to a series of modern vices, namely anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multitasking. The book concludes with a discussion of Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment. Each of these topics is important and potentially helpful to Christians in a frantic world.

Brueggemann, interacting positively with Michael Fishbane’s work, argues the Sabbath “concerns the maintenance of a distinct faith identity in the midst of a culture that is inhospitable to all distinct identities in its impatient reduction of all human life to the requirements of the market.” He goes on to say that the celebration of Sabbath is “resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”

For Brueggemann, Sabbath is much less doxological and much more economic. He certainly has a point here. When the original practice of Sabbath is considered, it largely differentiated Israel from the surrounding nations on an economic basis. It is easy to find support in Scripture for the argument that resting from economic activity on the Sabbath reflects a trust in God which has a doxological element.

Unfortunately, this book never really makes such an argument. Sabbath as Resistance is much more a diatribe against market economics than it is a theological argument for worshipful rest. The rhetorical rejection of a market economy is an undercurrent that runs just beneath the surface of the entire volume, occasionally bubbling to the top. Through all this, Brueggemann does not appear to consider the possibility that consumerism is an abuse of market economics. 

I tend to agree with Brueggemann that Christians need to practice a form of Sabbath. The 10 Commandments are a part of the moral law, and as such, still in play since they reflect God’s very nature. The fact that God himself practiced Sabbath after creating the world demonstrates that resting and enjoying the fruit of one’s labor is a part of the proper cycle of the created order. The reality that a failure to constrain our desires often leads us to overwork and under-worship is another argument for restoring a healthy practice of the Sabbath that resonates with Brueggemann’s book.

However, Brueggemann’s simplistic view of a market economy––that it “mandates that one must sink or swim by one’s own effort, and it is never enough simply to tread water”––reflects a confusion of an unhealthy attitude that has cropped up in our current consumerist economy rather than a cry for a rejection of the system out of hand. The problem may not be the system as much as it is the sinful people living and working within the system. Therefore, I agree with much of Brueggeman’s application, but not with his motivation.

A weakness in this volume is that it never deals with some important questions: 1) How is Sabbath to be practiced? 2) How did the Sabbath transfer to the Lord’s Day in the NT fellowships? 3) What do we do with Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath? Brueggemann appears to be so interested in presenting opposition to a free market economy that he misses obvious biblical data and practical questions that would make this a more helpful volume.

In the end, I appreciate some of what Brueggemann is doing here, but he has an axe to grind and does not support some of his conclusions well enough in this context. This is worth reading as one perspective on the contemporary practice of Sabbath in Christianity, but it has too many flaws to be helpful as a Bible study resource.

Note: A gratis copy of this book was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review. The opinions above are entirely my own.