(Created before June 11, 2013)
When I initially sat down and tried to organize my beliefs about the Sabbath four years ago, I believe what I concluded was that to obey the Sabbath meant to take a day off your income earning job, not necessarily Sunday. The importance of the Sabbath wasn't in the day that you celebrated it on, but rather in the fact that you took a day off and designated it to the Lord.
Lately I've been thinking about the Sabbath. If the point of the Sabbath was to keep it holy, and this is best done when we aren't distracted by work, then to what extents are we going to keep the Sabbath free of work? How much of our Sabbath is spent resting, how much of our Sabbath is meant worshiping God?
Those questions arose in my mind, and they were convicting to me, and I thought I would share them, even though I plan on going in a significantly different direction in this article.
This past weekend my brother brought my attention to a particular passage in the bible, Hebrews 4. I'm going to dissect this passage a little at a time, please feel free to let me know if I am not doing so correctly.
Hebrews 4:1 Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.
If this verse is referring to the day of rest, or the Sabbath, then it imperative that we continue to obey this fourth law of the ten commandments. I have a feeling that even if this isn't referring to the Sabbath in the same sense as we are to obey it as a commandment, after reading more of Hebrews 4 we will see the Sabbath different from than the way we (or at least "I") have traditionally viewed it.
Hebrews 4:2-3 For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said,
“So I declared on oath in my anger ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world.
What is "the good news" referring to? Well, taking the first verse into account, I believe that the good news was that we had the ability to enter God's rest. However, according to this passage, not everyone enters God's rest. Only those who have believed enter it.
"Now we who have believed enter that rest Now we who have believed enter that rest," I find the fact that this is written in the present tense quite fascinating. We'll talk more about tense later on.
When God says "they shall never enter my rest" who is he referring to?
Well here Paul is quoting Psalm 95. In that passage, David is retelling the story of the Israelites, and how they refused to acknowledge God despite seeing the wonderful miracles that he had so blatantly displayed to them. The specific people this passage is referring to is the people brought out of slavery in Egypt. Yet I believe we can safely draw a parallel between these people and the people in today's day in age.
Everywhere we look we see examples of God's greatness. From the brilliant science of the way the earth is stitched together to the remarkable examples of his grace to us both in the bible and the lives of his servants. Yet despite all this evidence pointing to God, people refuse to take him seriously.
When Paul says only those who have believed enter God's rest, what does it mean to believe? Obviously it is not enough to simply acknowledge the existence of God. The Israelites knew and would confess God's existence. However, to "believe" means to translate the knowledge that he is there to the action of obeying him and putting faith in him. The Israelites didn't do this, but instead tried to force the knowledge that God exists to creating for themselves an image of a god that they preferred, one that they had some control over. A prelude to their formation of the golden calf idol was their attitude of rebellion against God.
I know the main intent of this article (which is turning into something more akin to a transcript of a sermon) is to explore the meaning of the Sabbath. I can't help but to make an aside here, however, and point out that so many of us like to do what the Israelites did and believe whatever we want about God, instead of listening to his words and acknowledging that he isn't accountable to us, but we are accountable to him.
At this point it is still somewhat unclear as to what it means to be in God's rest, the reward for those who do believe him. As the final part of Hebrews 4:3 points out, as well as what is apparent Hebrews 4:4-5, if we are going to momentarily label the creation of the universe as "work," God's work is complete, and so we are existing in the point when God is resting. But since some people are excluded in being part of God's rest, I believe it is safe to assume that "God's rest" isn't referring to the fact that God is resting but the fact that we have access to rest in him.
Hebrews 4:6-7 Therefore since it still remains for some to enter that rest, and since those who formerly had the good news proclaimed to them did not go in because of their disobedience, God again set a certain day, calling it “Today.” This he did when a long time later he spoke through David, as in the passage already quoted:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
Woah, wait, what? Today? Are you sure this is talking about the Sabbath and not Heaven or something? Well, let's backtrack a little bit and look at the two previous verses if you haven't already.
Hebrews 4:4-5 For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.”
Now let's look at the actual commandment that tells to obey the Sabbath:
Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For 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.
Okay, so the Sabbath is celebrated because we are to rest just as God has rested. Yet Paul just said that we are to celebrate the Sabbath "today." And since everyday is, in a sense, "today," at least when we reach it, it's fair to say that every day is to be treated like a Sabbath. But wait, isn't the commandment saying that we should refrain from doing any work? As much as I would love to stop here and take up a lazy lifestyle and call it holy, you and I both know that this couldn't be what Paul means.
We can't harden our hearts towards God if we are to enter his rest. If we truly have soft hearts towards God we will be eager to obey everything commands us to do, and so we will find ourselves doing what may be considered work. But isn't this a contradiction?
Hebrews 4:8-11 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.
What is that part with Joshua about? Well, as you may remember, God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, but they had yet to find a place to settle. Moses didn't enter the land that God had promised for the Israelites. It was during the leadership of Joshua that the Israelites obtained a place to settle down so they no longer had to wander throughout the wilderness.
Joshua 1:13 Remember the command that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you after he said, ‘The LORD your God will give you rest by giving you this land.’
But Paul just said that Joshua hadn't given the Israelites rest. There must be, then, some distinction to be made between the rest referred to in the two passages. The rest given to the Israelites during the time of Joshua was physical rest. No longer did Israel need to wander the wilderness. They were given a place to settle down. But only whose hearts were not hardened towards God entered his spiritual rest.
So what then? Do we still need to set aside a day as the Sabbath then?
Although I believe there is an answer to this question, I don't believe we can exclusively use Hebrews 4 to arrive at it.
Romans 7:6 But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
According to this verse, we who are Christians aren't bound by the law. In other words, we no longer need to obey it. Romans 7:1 explains that one is only bound by the law as far as one lives, so now that we have died to ourselves, put to death our sinful natures, and come to live a new life through Jesus, the law that ruled our old life no longer reigns in our new one.
No, this doesn't mean it's okay for Christians to murder, there's more:
Romans 8:1-4 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
So in place of the law that no longer binds us, the rules put in place to show us that we are sinners (Romans 7:7), there is a new law put in place by the Spirit that now dwells in Christians. And this new law if anything is more strict than the one put in place in the time of Moses.
Recall how Jesus explains how even if someone has looked lustfully on someone, they have committed adultery with them in their heart (Matthew 5:28).
Hosea 6:6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
Here's what I'm getting from all this:
God created the world in six days. On the seventh day God rested. In order to celebrate God's greatness and the work he has done for us, the Israelites were to take a day off work and in their free time focus on God - keep the day holy.
God wanted to bless the Israelites, but they hardened their hearts against him. Because of their rebellion, God caused them to wander around in the wilderness for forty years. However, God did promise them a place to live, a place to rest, and after the generation that came out of Egypt - the generation that saw God's presence possibly more than any other group of people, and still maintained disobedient attitudes - had died, God blessed the Israelites with a land to settle down in.
But there was a rest available to those who believed in God greater than the rest of taking a day off work and a greater than the rest of no longer having to wander through the wilderness. God's rest was available to whoever believed in him and surrendered their lives in obedience to him. They could have the peace that comes from the knowledge that God loves them and has prepared a home in heaven for them. This is the rest that God wants for his people more than just simply physical rest.
When Christ died as the final and ultimate sacrifice demanded by God for the payment of our sins, he freed those of us who come into covenant with him from the law that bound the Israelites for many generations. Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit, who put in place a new law to replace the old one.
We no longer have to observe the Sabbath commanded by the Ten Commandments, for after all, what God wants more than empty works, religious duties, meaningless sacrifices, is a heart that yearns for him and for what he wants.
Out of appreciation of what Christ has done for us, we are eager to live a life that likely obeys every single one of the Ten Commandments. Although we are not obligated to take one day off to worship Christ, since we have the Holy Spirit in us we long to do so anyway. A day off frees us from the distractions of work and gives us time to read the bible, pray, listen to God, listen to godly speakers, come together in fellowship with other people both in church and outside of it, sing praises to the one who is worthy to be praised. Observing The Sabbath is one thing out of many things we do not because we have to but because we want to.
The Sabbath is also a great reminder of the rest in God that we can have today and ultimately have in Heaven.