…And I Will Give You Rest

May 6, 2010

restI don’t think I understand the Sabbath.

“. . . in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.  Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”  Therefore God tells us, in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15, to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy:  “Six days you shall labor 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 . . . .”

Because this command is among the Ten Commandments, I assume that it is part of the moral law, as opposed to the ceremonial law, and thus that it continues to be binding on us Christians today, like the commandments not to steal, not to murder, etc.   But what does it mean to obey this commandment?

Christianity is not a legalistic religion, and I feel as if trying to work out a code of specific things I can and can’t do on Sundays would be legalistic.  Jesus deals with questions of Sabbath observance in the parallel passages Matthew 12:1-14, Mark 2:23-3:6, and Luke 6:1-11, and He tells us, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  In the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, God draws a connection and contrast between the Sabbath and slavery:  “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.”  So maybe in the non-legalistic new covenant of Christianity, all I have to do is make sure I’m not a slave to my work, sacrificing all my waking hours to an employer, school, or anything else.  Maybe if I make time in my life (throughout the week) for rest and reflection (including prayer and Bible reading), I’ll be fully obeying the spirit of the law, applying the Sabbath to my particular circumstances in this particular time and place.

On the other hand, maybe Jesus doesn’t give me nearly that much license to define the boundaries of the Sabbath.  In those passages, the only two kinds of “work” being done were (1) Jesus and His disciples were hungry; so they gathered food, and (2) Jesus healed a man.  His discussion of law and mercy, especially in Matthew, suggests that even under the old covenant, in Judaism, it was better for a man to do something admittedly “not lawful”—a violation of the ceremonial law—than to neglect an even more important good, such as eating to survive, or loving one’s neighbor.  If this is how He wants me to understand the Sabbath, not only under the old covenant but also under the new, then I’m not free to work whenever I feel like it, but can make exceptions to the basic rules onlyto the extent that objectively higher priorities override them.

At least, if I assume that I’m in compliance with the law of the Sabbath whenever I feel as if I were, how useful is it as a moral law to shape my life?  If I generally take feeling good about my actions to be a sign that everything is fine, don’t I risk being largely blind to my own pride, for example, or any number of other sins?


Edit (May 11th, 2010): a couple of further thoughts—

I’ve heard some suggest before, and Rob (godsloveandlaw, below) suggests on his blog, that at least part of what this commandment means for us Christians today is that we ought to go to church every week.  I’m inclined to agree; church certainly seems like a way to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”, and in any case I think all Christians ought to go to church every week, whether that responsibility is found in this commandment or elsewhere.  I don’t mean that I think missing the odd week here and there is a sin, but I think there’s a morally significant difference between (1) sleeping in one Sunday and (2) generally not making a practice of going to church, just as there’s a difference between a couple’s (1) using contraceptives to adjust the number and timing of their children and (2) deciding not to have children at all.

I guess I’m thinking that I won’t consider it necessarily “against my religion” to do work (even paid work, for a job) on a Sunday (although I’ll certainly try to avoid having a work week that extends to Saturdays and Sundays to the extent practicable, whether that’s for religious reasons or other), but I would still like to help other people observe their own Sabbaths.  The “blue laws” that used to guarantee that no one in a given community would have to do certain kinds of work on a Sunday aren’t common these days, at least in the part of the country I’m familiar with (and I think there are good arguments for such laws, even though I’m generally very much for free markets and against government interference), but each of us still has some power to affect the incentives and pressures on others through our own voluntary actions:  I’m going to try (to the extent practicable) not to go to the store on a Sunday, and especially not to go out to eat on a Sunday, any more.  Of course Sunday, being (for most of us) part of the weekend (when we’re not working), is one of the most convenient days for many of us to do our shopping, and to enjoy the occasional relaxing dinner out.  But the other side of that coin is that for us to relax and have those conveniences, other people have to be working those hours (including, sometimes, being pressured to skip church and work instead)—and such work!  Working as a busboy or waiter can be particularly stressful and unpleasant, and I don’t want to inflict that on anyone on what might otherwise be his day of rest.

10 Responses to “…And I Will Give You Rest”

  1. godsloveandlaw Says:

    Chillingworth, you are very insightful to bring up such questions. God’s spirit has moved you towards seeking His truth. Please see my post “7 truths the anti0Sabbath keepers must ignore, to first get a clear view of “WHY” the Sabbath cannot be denied. Sincerely Rob, http://www.godsloveandlaw.wordpress.com

  2. didache Says:

    Chillingworth, this has been on my mind in recent months, but without a conversation partner, I’ve continually shuffled it to the back of my mind to be dealt with later. Every Sunday I agree to cover a shift or hold a meeting, I wonder whether I am transgressing something important. Christianity sometimes leaves us with an unsatisfyingly small number of clear rules.

    My short answer is that Christian dogma provides no clear answer, and that one cannot deduce from the Bible what one ought to avoid doing on the Sabbath, so any legalistic analysis is doomed. We are left only with grace, I think.

    Why we cannot know from the Bible what constitutes “work”:

    I have nothing like a systematic answer, but here are some unrelated thoughts, in no particular order:

    Specific Jewish prohibitions on work come not from the Bible but from halakha. Jews are still arguing about what we can and cannot do on the Sabbath.

    Jesus’ discussions with other Jews about the Sabbath rules are part of a wider conversation which we are witnessing two thousand years removed, through the fairly narrow peep-hole of the gospel writers, whose primary intent was not to engage in a thorough debate about the Sabbath, but instead to bring us to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John actually tells us what it is up to in 20:31: “These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in His name.” I’m told that it is nearly impossible to speak of one single “Jewish” tradition, especially in the first century. Jewish scholars of the New Testament claim that Jesus’ remarks about Sabbath observance may not have been terribly outlandish–at least, the period saw a lot of variety and disagreement about tradition is almost built into the fabric of Jewish faith and practice.

    For example: Above, you say that Jesus breaks the Sabbath for two reasons: hunger and healing. Contemporary Judaism has come to the conclusion that healing on the Sabbath is permitted for acute ailments like bad injury (or rescuing your sheep from a ditch?). It is possible, then, that some of Jesus’ healings are controversial not because they are healings, or even clear violations of Sabbath according to some widely agreed-upon Jewish understanding, but because he healed people who had chronic illnesses. One might ask Jesus: “why not wait one more day?”

    If we look at Sabbath passages in direct relation to the above stated purpose of the Gospel of John (and likely the unstated purpose of the other three), we see those discussions primarily as rhetorical argument for the fact that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus does break the Sabbath, in a sense. He declares himself Lord of the Sabbath in the synoptics. In John 5:17, he says, “My father is still working, and I also am working.” (The Jews have concluded that God works on the Sabbath.) If we are to take Jesus as a model for our own behavior, this passage gives us clear license to work on the Sabbath. It isn’t even much of a stretch if we see ourselves as children of God (our Father). But, Jesus has nothing to say here about whether we ought to work on the Sabbath. That isn’t the point. We are meant to understand that Jesus is different. He’s God. In the synoptic passages you cited, Jesus compares himself to David. If David could break the Sabbath, how much more license does the Son of Man have?

    What Christian dogma has to say:

    Sabbath is included in the ten commandments, but there are two reasons given for keeping it. For one, it is a sign of a covenant, rather like circumcision, but (like Passover) directly tied to the exodus. The other reason given is that God rested on the seventh day (from this one it follows that the Sabbath is good for us, like allowing land to go unfarmed once every seven years).

    Covenant: We have a new covenant now. We don’t celebrate Passover. I will mention again the purpose of the Gospel of John: that we come to believe in Christ, and in so believing find eternal life. We celebrate the Lord’s Day on Sunday because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday. That, not the Sabbath, is our holy day and our commemoration of our new covenant.

    The Didache is one of the earliest documents summing up what it means to be a Christian (typically dated to the late 1st century). It does not mention Sabbath or rest, even as it parses and expands the ten commandments. It notes that there is one primary commandment: love God and love your neighbor. The Didache lists lots of “don’t,” among them abortion, yet has nothing to say about the Sabbath. It talks a lot about the Eucharist. Maybe Christianity has a sortof myopic value system (all Jesus all the time?), but Sabbath ends up one of those periphery questions, and all our worry about it has to be subsumed under the claim that Jesus is the son of God, that we are saved by grace, and that our primary commandment is to love.

    Rest: People who are overworked know they are overworked. At least, I can tell that I feel different if I have not allowed time for quiet contemplation, for worshipping God, for praying. We ought to value rest because God told us to, and because it is good for us. I think that Christian Sabbath keeping will involve intentional rest. This means more than simply not become a slave to one’s work, but less than refraining from carrying anything around or refusing to use electricity on Saturdays.

    I would like to believe that if we try to live well, hoping in the Lord and asking to be led by the Holy Spirit, we will find ourselves not too far from where we ought to be. Thomas Merton prays, “I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” We will never know if we are doing the will of God; we can only hope. Anyway, given the complexity of any legalistic understanding of the Sabbath, I’d argue that even so all you’ve really got to go on is your own sense about whether you are keeping the Sabbath well enough. Maybe Sabbath was always about trust in God.

  3. godsloveandlaw Says:

    Didache, you really shouldn’t have to be conflicted on the issue of the Sabbath (7th day) please read “7 truths the anti-Sabbath keepers must ingore” on my site http://www.godsloveandlaw.wordpress.com (under Sabbath heading)for more insight, thanks Rob

  4. Thank you both for your help. Didache, thank you especially for providing further information about texts and traditions and for offering your opinions and some organization for thinking about this (despite your “no particular order” disclaimer!). Rob, I read your blog entry; I think there’s a lot that we agree on, including your point one, that Christians ought to go to church every week. On the other hand, for whatever it’s worth, I have to agree with Didache that (for us Christians, today, in the new covenant) Sunday is our Sabbath. (The Holy Spirit is with Christ’s church, guiding her, and it seems very unlikely to me that practically the whole church would get it completely wrong for so long, especially if the day of the week is as important as you imply.)

  5. godsloveandlaw Says:

    Thank you for taking the time to read “7 truth’s the anti-Sabbath keepers must ignore”. As you may acknowledge if everyhting I have said is true, then how can we ignore God’s words? Can we make up “alternate” truth to substitute God’s word? As far as “if everybody is doing it (worshipping on Sunday) it must be true” then that is certianly the behavior as it was in Jesus’ day. Were the vast majority of “religious people” doing the right thing when Jesus came in His day? Infact the Jews had SO MANY customs and regulations for the Sabbath that Jesus Himself rebuked them for such perversion of His Holy day. Jesus was very troubled by the mass of people not obeying God and doing His word. So to is it today. If you study history you’ll find the roots of Sunday worhip started in the Roman empire(specifically with ruler Constantine). The Holy Spirit will NEVER guide us to break God’s Holy Commandments! It is only by tradition that man denies God’s (and our Lord’s) Holy Sabbath day.This is truth and if it were not I’d be going back to my old “Sunday” worship. But simply on “faith” I tried DOING God’s Commandment (Sabbath) and WOW! My eyes were opened. So delve into His word with prayer and asking His guidance and he will guide you to this truth, sincerely Rob

  6. didache Says:

    godsloveandlaw, In fact I did read your blog entry. And while I did not have time to read all of the comments posted beneath it, I read a few of them. Part of what you all discussed was the very issue I raised in my comment above: that the point of the Gospels is Jesus Christ. “The law indeed was given through Moses; Grace and Truth through Jesus Christ.” The gospels present Jesus as superseding Moses. I assume that we will have to respectfully disagree with one another, and I am willing to believe that God does indeed allow for some variety of belief, or of emphasis, as we may all be receptive to different forms of instruction.

    Your blog entry treats the question of whether we ought to keep the Sabbath (answering in the affirmative), but the only answer you provide for the question which follows directly on the heels of the first (“How, then, do we keep the Sabbath?”) is to say that we ought to keep it on Saturday rather than Sunday. Good for starters. I’m not sure Chillingworth ever disagreed with you about the “whether,” but only about the “how.”

    I feel as though this should be posted as a response to your blog post rather than Chillingworth’s, but some discussion is being had here, so here I will remain.

    Also, unrelatedly, as long as we are talking about history and truth, could I point out that we have no way of knowing whether Jesus went to synagogue once a week? Actually, it’s pretty hard to know exactly how synagogues were thought of in the first century before the destruction of the temple. Certainly with the rise of rabbinic Judaism, after the demise of the sacrificial cult at the temple, they became centers of religious activity, but in Jesus’ time there is likely no equivalent to Christian church services. Likewise, I’m not sure how much relevance Paul’s conversion of Gentiles on the Sabbath has. First, I’ll offer that it took Christianity a while to find its feet as a religion and the timing and manner of the “parting of the ways” between Christians and Jews is lost in the mists of history. Likely, Paul was preaching before such a parting, as early as 50 AD, and decades before the Gospels were written. I’ve been told that it wasn’t unheard-of for Gentiles to go to synagogues. Jews of the period called uncircumcised Gentile groupies “God-fearers.”

    I don’t mention these things to detract from the credibility of your seven-point argument for the Sabbath, but to indicate that the situation is not necessarily as obvious as we would like it to be, especially when we appeal to history. So, I guess, I don’t acknowledge that everything you say is true. But my disagreement with you about the Sabbath has less to do with the truth of your claims than with my understanding of the relationship between grace and the law. And my belief in the absolute centrality of Christ as God’s Son offered as an atoning sacrifice for our sins as an act of mercy and gift of God’s grace.

    Our small human minds and lives don’t have space for everything. We must prioritize and give all the different claims on our time and thoughts their due proportion. As I understand the Bible, as a Christian, I believe I ought to give the greater portion of my thoughts and exertions to grace, trusting in the ongoing leadings of the Holy Spirit. Chillingworth briefly mentioned the Holy Spirit above. I think the Holy Spirit might be very important here. It seems to me that Christians follow the Holy Spirit, in a sense, rather than the law, but that these are two different ways God has chosen to lead his people. I think the Holy Spirit represents a significant upgrade.

    If anyone is still reading by this point, thank you for your time. I am glad for this place to sort out my thoughts. I’ve heard it said of some of the more long-winded theologians (and philosophers) that they are of those people who “learn by talking.” It is my sad lot in life to be one of those learners-by-talking, I fear.

  7. godsloveandlaw Says:

    didache, thanks also for reading the post. I have had many discussions with “Christians” and many times leads to their point being “Jesus” has “freed” us from His Law. However they make no distinction to the fact the the NT discusses TWO Laws. One is the great Moral law, written with Jesus’s fingers and spoken aloud with his voice(NOT given by Moses) the other the “Mosiac” laws. Those were written on paper and ,yes, given by Moses to the people and included the sacrificial, ceremonial, ritual laws. Here, Paul very clearly explains that THOSE were a shadow of things to come (Jesus’ sacrafice). Your point about “the point of the Gospels is Jesus” is correct. However Jesus’ Law(Moral) CANNOT be seperated from Him. It’s like saying “Oh, I beleive in Elvis Presley, but I don’t like his music”,lol. Each of the points raised in the post are powerful and full of truth. Which , you being a Christian should readily agree with.
    As far as how we “ought to keep the Sabbath” it really must first be clear that the SEVENTH day is the Holy Sabbath, NOT the first day (Sunday). Then after this is acknowledged then the discussion can surely go to “How”.
    To answer to you “no way of knowing whether Jesus went to the temple once a week”. The facts are really there to back up this claim. We know in Luke it say’s it was His “Custom” to attend the temple on the Sabbath. We know that His family were very upright religious people who brought Him up strictly in the customs of weekly Sabbath services. Finally Jesus had NO sin. And it is clearly written “Sin is transgression of the Law” We know it’s not the Mosiac law because the bible clearly states this law is no longer needed. So it must be the Moral Law (which includes the Sabbath in the heart of it).
    Lasting, on your point “we should follow the Holy Spirit rather than the Law” I must say the Holy Spirit’s job is to confirm all truth to us. It CANNOT guide us to “Break” His Holy Law, thereby commiting “sin”. Hope this helps, Rob

  8. didache Says:

    Rob, First, this will be the last comment I contribute to our exchange. Our poor host must approve every comment we post here, and Chillingworth, for Chillingworth’s part, seems to have come to a conclusion on our subject. Moreover, I think a blog can be didactic, but not dialogic, and especially not dialectically dialogic. So, I offer again that I expect we will simply have to disagree.

    But I would like to leave you with some final thoughts. You may have the last word if you like.

    If you are going to continue discussing this with other Christians, I hope you will thoughtfully consider the following:

    Why do you think your opposition opposes you? Neither I nor Chillingworth have suggested scrapping the Sabbath. People aren’t trying to get out of celebrating the Sabbath because it’s a bother to them, or because they think there is some objective problem with celebrating the Lord’s Day on Saturday. There is no reason for me not to go along with you (even despite your factually incorrect arguments), EXCEPT that I think it is theologically flawed and not congruous with a Christian worldview. Your conversation partners are probably not so much AGAINST Sabbath as they are FOR Jesus. And likely also wary of legalism, which goes against one of the most basic tenets of Christianity: that we are saved by grace not by works. (Even the Catholics’ more complex understanding of grace and works ultimately concludes this much.) When Chillingworth says above that Christianity isn’t legalistic, it’s a shorthand of sorts for a whole constellation of theological claims and it is without the scope of this conversation to address them. We’ll stick to a little basic Christology.

    I think the folks who disagree with you rightly understand your arguments as effectively de-centering Christ. Put briefly, I think that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. I think this must be the starting point for everything. I will address a few of the implications of this claim below.

    1. You wrote, “As far as how we ‘ought to keep the Sabbath’ it really must first be clear that the SEVENTH day is the Holy Sabbath, NOT the first day (Sunday). Then after this is acknowledged then the discussion can surely go to ‘How’.”

    Isn’t that a bit like Nancy Pelosi saying we have to pass the health care legislation to find out what’s in it?

    Try this: think of Sunday as the eighth day. The very fact of worshiping on the eighth day is a theological statement: Jesus rose from the dead. We declare that every time we keep Sunday holy. Also, I believe that something important happened with Jesus. Things are new, and different. Evil has been conquered. The incarnation was a game-changing event, and our lives and religion must be ordered with respect to that.

    Christians were worshipping on Sunday much, much earlier than you say above. Justin Martyr writes about Sunday worship as early as the mid- second century (and others even earlier than that). Actually, a brief google search for what Justin Martyr (hardly a heretic, right?) had to say on the subject brought up a whole wikipedia article about it, which has conveniently cited just the passage I’d like you to see. So, read what he has to say about it, if you are willing.


    2. You got me on that passage from Luke about it being Jesus’ custom to go to synagogue. You put me to shame, too, because I wrote about that very pericope just a few months ago. Let’s talk about synagogue and Christology for a moment. You seem to think that we ought to emulate Christ’s customs and behaviors. I hear this most often from two groups of people: (1) Liberal Christians who don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus but see him as a moral teacher. And (2) Muslims paid great attention to the “customs” of Mohammed and they imitate him and his lifestyle in as much as they can (Consider the Sunnah, or “way of the Prophet”). So that’s admittedly a red flag for me.

    But once one claims that Jesus is also God, that kind of imitation becomes problematic.

    I said this above, but I wrote a lot, so in case you missed it I will repeat: Jesus DOES break the Sabbath. When he is accused of working on the Sabbath, he doesn’t deny it or say that the Jews misunderstand. He says, “My Father is still working, so I am also working.” He is saying he doesn’t have to keep the Sabbath. (If Jesus is our example, as you say, it follows that we don’t have to keep the Sabbath either. This isn’t my belief; it is a conclusion logically derived from your own premises.)

    Further, your reading of scripture might actually tell you that you ought to go to a Jewish synagogue on Saturday. Jesus didn’t go to church.

    Church is not the same as synagogue. They are both religious services, but they aren’t really analogous. Christian worship services developed for the express purpose of remembering Jesus and celebrating the Lord’s Supper. The whole institution of the Christian church was developed after the ascension of Christ — after the Pentecost, really — and only because Jesus was who he was: God, and our savior.

    3. You wrote to Chillingworth, “Jesus was very troubled by the mass of people not obeying God and doing His word. So to is it today.”

    Jesus did not come to Earth as a reformer. That was not his purpose. This is the crux of my argument with you. I’ll try to pull together the things I’ve been writing about here.

    Jesus is not part of the tradition, given to us as an example of how to perfectly follow it. He isn’t a reformer within a religion. He isn’t under the law given to man; He’s God: the source of all morality. (here, actually, it might benefit us to think about the difference between “morality” and “law.” Thomas Aquinas (also no heretic), for example, explains that laws are rules of behavior proscribed for creatures with reason. But God, in the Godhead, doesn’t function in terms of law: instead there is simply God’s eternal reason. In this way, Jesus isn’t separable from God, though Jesus is separable from law. And law in turn, even moral law, is a slightly different concept from pure moral perfection emanating from the Godhead.)

    Anyway, Jesus isn’t a man living WITHIN our tradition; Jesus IS our tradition. He is the beginning and the end of it. But for our discussion, I’m focusing on the idea that Jesus is the beginning. There is no church without him. We don’t attend church because Jesus did (he didn’t). We attend church because Jesus died. And the whole point of church is Jesus, so it is only fitting that our religious practices, including the day upon which we choose to worship, be ordered around the fundamental truth of salvation effected through Christ.

    I rest my case. Not because I have said all that could be said on the matter, but because I cannot dedicate any more time to this cumbersome form of discussion. Also I fear that we have already begun simply to repeat ourselves to one another, and insofar as that is the case, no discussion is being had, but only simple argument, and that profits neither of us.

  9. godsloveandlaw Says:

    Reading your “final” post i really had to chuckle. it’s like being in a serious discussion to arrive at some type of “truth” and the guy says “I’m telling you how it is, and that’s that” lol. I will say I’ll not pursue answering you points as I see your closed mind is made up. Know this though if you continue in following “man’s tradition of Sunday worship” be prepared to obtain the mark in the near future (and it’ll be placed on you from God not man)

  10. Christ Lover 3273 Says:

    Let the power of the Lord shine on us all!!!

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