Sunday, March 11, 2007


Another day in the office, another theological debate ... Why do some Christians believe strongly in keeping Sunday as a Sabbath day, and others not. Is one lot right and the other wrong? This is not a common debate in Scottish churches nowadays. Most have felt comfortable that Paul's rejection of legalistic observances, and the specific verses Rom 14:5-6, Col 2:16, mean that Sabbath is not a big deal. But this is not true for all churches, and particularly not for some with strong links to the NW Highlands. (Is this cultural link significant?) Whether I agree or not with the Sabbatarian point of view, I have benefited from reflecting on the subject. (I would probably benefit even more if I actually studied the subject too!) The answer is not in this posting ... just some ideas that helped me think more carefully about Sabbath.

An argument against Sabbath keeping is that we are "under grace rather than the law", and that if we feel the Sabbath is binding then we are bound by the whole law. (I'm ignoring the debate over whether Sabbath is Saturday, or the "Lord's Day", because its to simplistic a get-out that avoids the main issue.)

It's often said that each of the 10 commandments is re-affirmed by Jesus or Paul in the New Testament, with the exception of keeping the Sabbath. If so are the other 9 commandments are binding? Again if we say yes then does the "partial law requires whole law" principle arise again? If we say they are not binding, do we say it is fine for a Christian to murder, lie or worship idols? Depends what you mean by "binding" really ... binding in Old Testament Law terms meant that disobedience led to death or expulsion from the people of God. It effectively meant rejection by God. In New Testament grace terms, behaviour that is contrary to these commands does not necessarily mean rejection by God, but it is behaviour that contradicts the new creation beings that we are in God's eyes. The behaviour is destructive to the Holy Spirit's work in making us more like Christ and therefore must be brought into the light of God's truth, where it can be acknowledged as wrong, the behaviour pattern rejected, so it can be included in the "washed away" pile. Faith in the efficacy of this "washing away" comes faith in the efficacy of Christ's death. Faith in the efficacy frees a believer to embrace "Kingdom of God" behaviour instead. (1 John 1:7-9)

So is Sabbath-keeping 'Kingdom of God behaviour', or to ask in another way, is 'not keeping the Sabbath' a behaviour pattern that 'contradicts the New Creation beings that God has made us into'? If in either case we were to answer "yes", then we would really be saying that in New Covenant terms, Sabbath keeping is a binding principle. I'll leave that argument there.

The Colossians passage mentioned earlier goes on to say that the Sabbath is a shadow of a reality that is found in Christ. Hebrews 4 talks of Sabbath rest that is in some way entered by those who believe, in that we rest from our own efforts (v10), yet it is incomplete at this stage. Jesus invites those who are weary to come to him and rest (Matt 11:27-30). In the context of v27, the rest that Jesus speaks of is resting in the knowledge that God is known by men through the revelation of the Son, and only in this way, not by our own efforts. In the backdrop of Heb 4, relationship with Christ, through faith rather than works, is the greater reality that Sabbath days pointed to. The Sabbath principle required faith in God to provide for daily needs. (Lev 25:20-21) Relationship with Christ requires faith that God has given completely of himself to enable us to have that relationship. This is why I believe that Sabbath days are "Holy to God" in the Old Testament ... they set the people apart as those who were allowed to exist (and prosper) because God chose to provide for them, not because of their own efforts or because they deserved it. They declare God's sovereignty and providence.

But in practical terms we need the pointers as well as the greater reality ... do we rely completely on our own efforts to get all our work done, all our needs met? Or do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to not getting everything done by taking scheduled time out, and trust God to build his church, feed our families etc despite our taking that rest. Do our work rest patterns point to reliance on God or reliance on ourselves? (work-rest, rather than rest-rest, because the New Testament is full of the tension that God grows his kingdom and does his bidding, yet calls us to actively do stuff as part of the outworking of his kingdom).

And finally, I think Sabbath is inseparably linked to a favourite Old Testament theme of social justice. I get this from Exodus 23:10-12 ... and what's interesting here is that there are 2 Sabbath's established the Sabbath year, and the Sabbath day. The purpose given is that the poor and the wild animals may use the resting land to eat during the Sabbath year, and that the slaves and domestic animals may rest on the Sabbath day. One of the reasons I reflected so much on this debate, which I usually dismiss under the "Sabbath is Saturday so Sunday Sabbatarians are barking up the wrong tree" clause, was the prevalence of Sabbath desecration in passages about God's anger that I was reading from Ezekiel at the time my work colleagues were debating. (Ez 20, Ez 22). In particular, Ez 22 seems mainly concerned with the social injustices that resulted from the rejection of God as supreme and rejection of his laws, yet within that God seemed mad at the desecration of the Sabbath, which on the surface seems relatively minor, compared to the atrocities being committed. Yet when we recognise the link between Sabbath and social justice, particularly with reference to the Sabbath year, it seems likely that Social Injustice and Sabbath desecration were completely tied to each other. In Kingdom of God terms, do those of us who have any kind of power, who are employers, or leaders, who belong to consumer groups that drive demand for low cost high output industry, consider the effect of our demands on the poor, the vulnerable, or those at a power-balance disadvantage? Are we too far removed from the providers to be aware of their conditions? I'm not equating Social Justice with Sabbath, but I see a link that I think we find easy to ignore. (I think this goes beyond "if I buy milk on Sunday, I create demand for someone to work on [my] Sabbath day", but I guess it may include it.). This is a tough question, and is definitely not being asked from an "I solved it, what about you" point of view!

As far as the other arguments are concerned. I don't believe that one particular day is more important than another (I think the existence of Sabbath years as well as Sabbath days points to that potentiality). I think that the 1 in 7 principle is also a 6 in 7 principle, pointing both to the need to take responsibility for stewardship of what God gives, and to the need for regular rest and regularly acknowledging our faith in his provision. I also think the 1 in 7 principle helps us to understand that God has created us such that a certain level of work or demand is an acceptable, sustainable expectation to place on ourselves others, but beyond that is unjust and anti-Kingdom of God.

Comments welcome!

1 comment:

Ken Mullis said...

I think you are right in your general emphasis that all seven days belong to the Lord. As someone who has spent many years in full time Christian ministry, I see Sabbath, i.e. rest as a delightful gift which we may use and be refreshed, or ignore and pay the price, because God has made us to need special times of refreshment. I think that is particularly true for missionaries and ministers!!!