Category Archives: theology

The Sabbath. Now What?

bell tower

My experience has been that there is a tendency within the church not to take the fourth commandment as seriously as the other nine. There are a variety of reasons for this, some with better intentions than others, but as we conclude our examination on the Sabbath we should make sure we take a proper biblical view of the significance of the Sabbath.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism, a 17th century summary of many of the doctrines taught in Scripture, summarizes our obligations on the Sabbath as follows in #60:

“The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.”

This definition is often too narrow even for the most conservative Christian. They will throw up their hands and say, “Who can live to such a standard!” and contend Westminster is returning to legalism, or the burden of the Old Testament administration of the law. However, we have seen before that the obligations of God’s law do not change in transition from the Covenant of Works to the Covenant of Grace. Only the one who will obey them to grant life to God’s people changes. Since the 4th commandment is part of the moral law, its standard does not change. In addition, it is absolutely true that you cannot live to such a standard. That is the entire point. Neither can you live to the standard of the other nine commandments. However, our failures in part do not justify our neglect of the whole. The Lord cares about the Sabbath as much as the other commandments which we can see in the penalties he assigns to its breech.

God gives the outline of what should and should not be done on the Sabbath in Ex. 20:8-11 and Deut. 5:12-15. However, the penalties for breaking the law are given a little later. When God gives the penalty associated with breaking the Sabbath, he assigns it the highest possible value. To break the 4th commandment is a capital crime for Israel. It is on the same plane as murder, kidnapping, adultery, blasphemy and other such heinous sins. This penalty is not merely theory for the Lord, but he commands a man who collected sticks on the Sabbath to be put to death for it (Cf. Num. 15:32-36). Later on the neglect of the Sabbath would be one of the sins of the nation of Israel that led to its death in exile (Cf. Ezek. 20:12-13).

God cares deeply about his Sabbath and so we should be wary of discarding it. For some Sabbath observance may be a new idea, for some it may be a neglected idea, for some it may be a traditional idea. As we look at Scripture it should become for us a delightful idea. The Sabbath preserves for God’s people the centrality of worship in the governing of our time. Is it any surprise that the world should want to eliminate its practice? In the Westminster Larger Catechism the pastors of the 17th century sought to impress the significance of the Sabbath by saying that, “Satan with his instruments much labor to blot out the glory, and even the memory of it (the Sabbath – GG), to bring in all irreligion and impiety.” (WLC #121).

Now, church, let me ask. Since we have turned our back on the Sabbath in the last 50 years, do we have more or less commitment to Christ’s church? Are there more or less time dedicated to the corporate worship of God? Do people have a higher or lower regard for God as a result? I think the answers are clear, and it makes me wonder whether Satan and his instruments are temporarily being given their way to show us the results of the neglect of the worship of God.

What Can I Do on the Sabbath?

Ten Commandments

In this post, I’m going to assume you are on board with the idea that Sabbath observance continues to be binding in the New Testament church. If not, you can review my posts here, here and here. The question for today is how to set apart the Sabbath as holy as New Testament believers. Whenever you start talking about setting apart the Sabbath, the main question many people want to solve is whether or not their particular activity of choice would be permissible on the Lord’s Day. “Is it okay for me to do activity X on the Sabbath?” Other people have made artificial lines in the sand in an effort to maintain the sanctity of this day. I think we can do better. I think Scripture gives us a very clear picture of what the Sabbath, or Lord’s Day, should look like. The directives of the Bible on this commandment can be broken down into three main areas.

First, the fourth commandment clearly states that our daily labors are to cease. The Lord commands that on his Sabbath we “shall not do any work.” It is directed at individuals. Of course, works of necessity and mercy are not included in this command to rest, but by and large, we are to cease from our labors.

Second, the fourth commandment also states that the daily labors of those under our care should cease. From children to servants to cattle to foreigners, none are to do any work. The best picture of the implementation of this commandment comes from Neh. 13:15-22. There Nehemiah forcefully implements Sabbath rest, not only for the people of Israel, but also for the Tyrian merchants who tried to set up shop outside the gates. He understood: the Sabbath was a day of rest.

Third, as is so often the case in Scripture, mere external action is not a sufficient expression of our love for God. It must be accompanied by the appropriate motivation. Is. 58:13-14 tell us that on the Sabbath day our hearts are to be turned aside from our own pleasures and instead directed toward delighting in the Lord.

With these broad-stroke principles laid out in Scripture, we can determine the appropriateness of many, if not most, activities on the Sabbath. We simply translate the principles into questions and subject any activity to them: 1. Am I working? 2. Am I making anyone else work? 3. Am I turning from my own pleasure and delighting in the Lord? So long as we answer honestly I think these questions will take care of 95% of the activities in question. I will give only one example:

Can I eat in a restaurant on the Sabbath after morning church? Well, assuming there is no emergency crisis at your house you can ask the three questions. Are you working? No. Are you making others work? Yes. Are you delighting in the Lord? Maybe. For the Christian asking the three questions helps us see there is something in behavior that goes against God’s instruction. We are causing others to work and the 4th commandment says we should not. If our actions violate God’s commandment the Christian is not free to act in that way.

Do not forget. The Christian obeys God’s laws evangelically. What I mean is, we do not obey because we are hoping for God’s approval. Instead, we know and believe what God has done to make us acceptable, so we delight in being able to obey him. In Rom. 7:24 Paul, in agony of spirit cries out about how wretched a man he is. He does not cry this way because he has to obey God’s commandments. He cries out this way because he continually disobeys the commandments. So ask the three questions about your choices of activity on the Sabbath and be prepared to delight yourself in obeying the Lord.

The Purpose of the Sabbath

Bible Open

In our consideration of the Sabbath seen that the fourth commandment is part of the moral law given by God. These laws reflect the very character of God and turning against them is to turn against God. This moral law is summarized in the Ten Commandments (Cf. Deut. 4:13). Since the Sabbath is part of the Decalogue, this commandment is also binding for today. For the sake of time, I am assuming the arguments for the transfer of the Old Testament Sabbath from the seventh day to the Christian Sabbath, or Lord’s Day, on the first day of the week. I do that so we can take time to understand the purpose for God giving the fourth commandment instead.

There are three main reasons why God gives us the Sabbath:

First, Exodus 20:8-11 teaches us that God gives us the Sabbath so we might imitate his rest after he had finished his creative work. Each week again, we remember God’s rest and imitate him. Our rest draws us back to the six days of creation when God made all things. He is the creator of all things and therefore is Lord of all things. Nothing in this world falls outside the realm of God’s sovereign power. Considering this truth helps us to remember our obligation to him.

Second, Deuteronomy 5:12-15 teaches us to remember something else: the Exodus. There Moses says Israel is to obey the Sabbath because God led them out of Egypt. In the New Testament economy we have a similar exodus experience. It does not involve sand, tents and Jericho, yet the exodus is just as significant. By God’s grace, we are led out of our bondage to sin to the blessed hope of eternal redemption. We are led out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light (Cf. Col. 1:13). On the Sabbath we are called to remember our redemption.

Third, because of our propensity to be satisfied with hollow, outward obedience, God also directs our motives for the day. In Isaiah 58:13-14, we are told we ought not delight in our own pleasure but instead delight in the Lord. The function of Sabbath is, in fact, to help us turn from our normal orientation toward the Lord. We know from Romans 12:1-2 that all of life is worship to God, but in a special way, God sets aside the Sabbath for the purpose of worship: a special day for delighting in the Lord.

The Sabbath, then, functions as that weekly reminder of our eternal obligation to the Lord because we are his creatures, his gracious redemption of our souls from Satan’s kingdom and the worship we should give him on this special holy day. So what happens when we neglect the Sabbath? We eliminate the God-given reminder of who we are to live for. Instead of that weekly, central reminder that God is the author of all time, God becomes one of the choices we may make when it comes to using our time. We will work when we want, play when we want, travel when we want, sing when we want, and worship when we want, if at all. Skeptical? Just look around and ask yourself whether the church has flourished or faltered since she turned her back on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath in ALL of History

Sun Breaking Through Clouds

Last post we looked at the Sabbath as one of the three creation ordinances God established to give structure to our relationships with him, his world, and our fellow man. These ordinances are simply ways in which man is to imitate God. Work, marriage and rest are all done by God and as his image-bearers, we should do them as well.

These ordinances were established prior to the fall into sin, and form a perpetual order for mankind. They make up part of the core of man’s obligations to God. There are other obligations God places on his creation as well as part of his relationship with the world. These relationships between God and man in their different forms are called God’s covenants in Scripture. Prior to sin, God’s covenant with man was defined along the lines of his obedience. Man was to live before the Lord in perfect obedience, and in response God would graciously give life (Cf. Gen. 2:17). The initial relationship between God and man is typically called the Covenant of Works, or Life. However, after the fall in Gen. 3:8 man dies both physically and spiritually. His thoughts, motivations and desires are all corrupted by sin.

Man can no longer meet the righteous requirements of the obligations that go along with God’s covenant. However, God in his grace inaugurates another covenant: the Covenant of Grace. In this covenant, though man is unable to fulfill and obey, God sends the seed of the woman to be the mediator between God and man. This mediator is the Christ who lives in perfect obedience to God on our behalf. He came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17). His perfect righteousness is imputed to us that we would have life. If Christ had disobeyed he would not have been able to mediate between God and man. So Christ’s obedience does matter. God’s obligations for man never change, because they reflect his unchangeable character. These obligations make up God’s moral law.

God’s moral law is distinct from his other laws. When God summarizes the obligations of the covenant he gives to Israel, he summarizes them in the Ten Commandments (Cf. Deut. 4:13). We have already seen that God’s obligations do not change between covenants administrations. That means in all ages, the Ten Commandments are binding. We can easily see this distinction if we try and apply the Decalogue to pre-fall Eden.

If Adam, in Eden, would have decided to make an idol, he would have sinned. If Adam, in Eden, would have murdered or would have stolen, he would have sinned. However, if Adam failed to set up cities of refuge in Eden, he would not have sinned. The moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, was binding for him. The other laws are specific applications of this moral law to the people of Israel, or to the world as a whole now stained with sin.

Now here comes the point of this whole exercise. Since the Sabbath Day is part of the Ten Commandments it is part of God’s perpetual obligations for man and therefore is applicable for us as well. Exactly how that plays itself out in today’s world I leave for the next article.

What Is the Sabbath?

Ten Commandments

“And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’ (Mark 2:27)

Thus the debate begins. Is Sabbath an abiding principle, or is it something just for the nation of Israel? Are there Ten Commandments or nine? Does the New Testament church still need to honor the Sabbath? These are questions over which many sincere believers disagree. But what does the Bible teach us? Before we answer that question let us make time to understand our cultural context.

Until fairly recently North American culture respected the idea of Sabbath. This idea was implemented by the settlers of the New World and can be traced back as early as 1620. More than 300 years later, in 1961 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of laws prohibiting commerce on Sunday. In Canada, the Lord’s Day Act was finally struck down in 1985 to allow stores to be open on Sunday. Those prohibitions have long been cast aside and the idea of a national day of rest is laughable to most. Others, on the other extreme, turn Sunday into a day of list keeping. Therefore we have two extremes. One says the Sabbath is to be ignored, the other turns it into a checklist of things to and not to do.

To understand Sabbath we have to start at the beginning. To what point in history can our foundations for the Sabbath be traced? We can turn right to the beginning of time: creation. As God creates the world he institutes foundational ordinances to shape man’s relationship with the world he is to steward as well as with the God who gave him this responsibility. We will look briefly at the first two before settling in on a more detailed study on the Sabbath:

  1. Work. In Gen. 2:15, God places Adam in Eden to work there. Work is not a result of the fall, but precedes the fall and will continue into heaven. Work is what God does (see John 5:17). Man, as his image bearer, should reflect him.
  2. Marriage. In Gen. 2:24, bringing Adam and Eve together is the foundation for the institution of marriage. It is because God brought the first people together that marriage continues today. In Hosea, God himself is described as the faithful husband to an unfaithful bride, Israel. Marriage is designed by God and practiced faithfully by him. Man, as his image bearer should reflect him.
  3. Sabbath Rest. In Gen. 2:1-3 God sets apart one day in seven for rest. This rest is made up of the enjoyment of God’s blessing and the recognition of the special purpose assigned to the seventh day when God makes it holy (v. 3). Blessing in the Bible is the opposite of cursing. When God curses Adam after the fall he banishes him from his presence (Gen. 3:24). This curse is replaced in heaven with blessing when God promises to dwell among his people (Rev. 21:3). In addition, God makes the Sabbath holy. When God makes something holy he sets it apart for a special use. The seventh day is set apart to enjoy the blessing, or presence, of God. God rests on the seventh day, not from all his work, but from the work of creation. God rests on the seventh day. Man, as his image bearer should reflect him.

Sabbath. It is established at creation as one of the three foundational creation ordinances. Whatever we conclude in the weeks ahead, we cannot say Sabbath is cancelled with Moses’ other ceremonial laws, because it predates the law given at Sinai. Our task in the weeks ahead will be to discern the significance of this creation ordinance in the life of Israel, but then also in the life of the church.

Take Time to Find Yourself…It’s Not What You Think

Bible Open

At the beginning of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin begins by identifying true wisdom as consisting primarily of our knowledge of God and man. Specifically he states that “Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, chapter 1.1). We could spend a long time investigating that statement, but let us briefly consider its significance.

In the first pages of Scripture God’s greatness is established. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” However creative we may think ourselves, none of us can speak and bring worlds into existence. But not only does God create, but throughout Genesis the patriarchs are led, protected, corrected, and preserved by the Lord. He made the world, brought the flood, called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees, promising to bless all the families of the earth through him. It is only God’s greatness and goodness that establish these things.

Scripture, on the other hand, does not present man in the same light. Eight verses after God finishes expelling man from the Garden of Eden the Bible records its first murder. A few verses later, we are introduced to Lamech, the first polygamist and boastful murderer. The patriarchs don’t fare much better. Noah is a drunk, Abraham is twice willing to give his wife to another to save his own skin; Isaac copies his father’s survival technique. Jacob does his best to live up to his name, which means deceiver. Ten of his  sons dabble in a host of wicked behaviors, all in the first book of the Bible. So how does all this help us?

To understand both God’s holiness and man’s depravity means we understand the greatness of our salvation. It is good for us to meditate on both those truths. Especially for those of us who have had the blessing of learning our faith on our parents’ laps, we can begin to grow numb to the message of Scripture. It is in seeing the discrepancy between God’s holiness and man’s depravity that we realize the greatness of our love. Let me illustrate in a limited way by looking at human relationships. We can think of the times when we have been most deserving of our spouse’s, siblings’ or friends’ anger. Yet it is when they return our unkindness with kindness that we realize how much they love us. If Scripture only taught us of our wickedness we would despair. If the Bible only taught us about God’s goodness, we would lose our awe of him. It is in knowing both God’s goodness and our depravity that we see the greatness of God’s gift of redemption. And understanding the greatness of this gift will lead to a daily rejoicing in our salvation, expressed in a commitment to taking every thought, word and deed captive in the service in Christ’s kingdom.

Why Does the Bible Matter?

the Bible

Even those who do not believe in what the Bible says recognize it as tremendously influential. However Scripture, contained in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, is not just influential. It is the center-point for the thought and practice of the Christian. During the protestant reformation of the 16th century, the Bible was given an important place. In fact, it is included among the distinct principles, or the “solas” of the reformation. Sola Scriptura, means Scripture alone is our authority for doctrine and practice. This elevated status flows from a proper understanding of what the Bible is.

The Bible makes claims about itself. One of the best-known is found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” Within these verses we find the proper perspective toward our approach to the Bible.

In 2 Timothy, Paul speaks of the Bible’s inspiration. That means that when we read the pages of Scripture we read God’s words. In other words, when we read our Bibles we read the very thoughts of the only omniscient, or all-knowing, being. Since God is all-knowing, he is only one who can reveal with certainty the proper order of things. Man’s appeals for certainty outside of God fall on shifting foundations. Without total knowledge you can always discover you were wrong. Inspiration makes the Bible’s words certainly true. In the Bible, therefore, we have the only immovable foundation: the thoughts of the omniscient God.

Many implications for our approach to the Bible flow from the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. For example, the Bible is authoritative, along the lines of Sola Scriptura. Or the Bible is sufficient, meaning that it contains in its pages all that we need for faith and practice. Bart Ehrman notwithstanding, we must also believe that what God inspired he is also able to preserve. The church today can confidently state it is reading God’s word when it opens the Bible.

We are confident not only of the implications that flow from the Bible’s inspiration, but also in its clarity, or perspecuity. To be sure, there are parts of God’s word that are difficult to understand. For example, volumes have be written to reconcile the genealogies of Jesus found in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. We may never get a definitive answer on those passages. However, the Bible makes clear how we are to glorify God, be reconciled to him through Christ, and express our love to him for that salvation in good works.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that hearing and doing his words makes for a foundation built on the rock. To turn away from the Bible is to turn away from certainty, which means your foundation will be shifting. No doubt about it.

What You Think Shapes What You Do

Idolatry-of-Solomon-cropped

What is the chief end of man?
Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A #1)

I have great appreciation for the Westminster Standards. Westminster’s Confessions of Faith, Larger, and Shorter Catechisms have been useful in shaping my own and my children’s understanding of the Bible’s teachings. In fact, I think the first question and answer of the WSC sets the proper tone for all proper Christian understanding and practice.

I know peripherally of the controversy surrounding this question and answer stemming from an article written by Mark Jones over at reformation21. This article is not a response to what he has written. Be gone with you, all you polemicists! Instead, I want us to benefit from what is written rather than argue about what we think should be written, as valid as that discussion may be. So what is the chief end of man? The catechism gives us two main objectives for living. First, glorify God. Second, enjoy him.

To glorify God means to recognize his rightful, exalted position. It means we are to understand his greatness. To be able to recognize the disparity between God and ourselves, we need a reference point. We describe an ant as small compared to ourselves. In the same sense we understand the greatness of God by comparing him to ourselves. In his word we see his greatness in creation, the flood, the exodus, in establishing David’s kingdom, his judgment in the exile, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and in his promised return, among other things. At the same time, we see and experience our own weakness in sin, limited knowledge, and inability to control anything, just to name a few of our inadequacies. When these two pieces of knowledge come together, it causes us to glorify God. The Lord of heaven and earth stoops down to save wretched men. To live in that recognition leads us to glorify God, to worship him as the One True God. We do not re-invent him in our own image as Israel did when they made the golden calf (Cf. Ex 32:4-5). Instead, we live according to his commandments, recognizing he is worthy of our obedience.

The catechism’s charge to enjoy God keeps us from thinking we can glorify God without also delighting in the process, as if some external consent would be enough. The one who rightly understands the greatness of God and his own sin, sees the greatness of the gift of salvation God purchased for him in Christ. A begrudging obedience will not do. Rather, the Christian sees the burden of his master as easy and his yoke as being light.

What is the chief end of man? It is to recognize God’s greatness and our sin. It is to see wonderful gift of salvation. It is to have our hearts filled with joy and thanksgiving for that work. It is to express our understanding of the glory that already belongs to the Lord in thought, word and deed.