Thursday, 7 August 2014

THE SEARCH FOR SABBATH REST



So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” (Gen 2: 3)


It is sad that the Genesis creation narrative has become such a battleground in our day,  both inside and outside of the Church.  

 But no one can deny that it is so.

Are these to be understood as six literal days? Are we “old-earth” or “young-earth”?
Do we hold to catastrophism or uniformitarianism?

I fear that in all of this talk we may be in desperate danger of missing the main point.


 Let us see firstly that these opening verses of divine revelation are meant to be a signal, not for strife or for technical debate but rather for worship. This is because the creation account is not primarily about How or about When, but rather about Whom.

It behoves us to remind ourselves that the Bible is not a science manual; rather it is the history of God’s dealings with humanity, most especially in relation to salvation.

 This is not to say that the creation account as given is ahistorical, or that the How and When of creation are not legitimate lines of enquiry. But in our day we seem to have become so absorbed with the “nuts and bolts” of the event that we are guilty of ignoring or at least underplaying the deeper spirituals truths found within the Genesis text.

For ultimately the whole plan of redemption is in view in Genesis 1 & 2.

 The chapters are didactic, but their ultimate purpose is not to teach us about the age of the earth but rather about our life in Christ Jesus! 


In the verse cited above we can see that the first thing that God sanctified was time.

Long before there were stated to be holy places, holy buildings or even holy people there was already holy time!

  One prominent theme seen in the account relates to the allotting of time for both labour and rest within the created order. I would suggest that this is exemplified by not one but two aspects of the narrative.

 Firstly it is seen in God dividing the light from the darkness, thus providing the earth with day and night (Gen 1:4-5).

The contrast between light and darkness obviously has a strong ethical dimension to it which will be echoed throughout the Bible, but in the pre-Fall world (i.e. before the darkness of sin has entered) it is probably best to understand this division of day and night as being part of the divine allowance for labour and rest.

The Scriptures teach that Man was designed to be a diurnal creature i.e. one whose principal work activities would take place in the daytime, during the typical twelve-hours of light available to him. Perhaps we in our 24/7 electrically-lit world do not fully appreciate the extent to which work once ceased when the light failed!

 Night in the Garden perhaps served as a time of rest and spiritual replenishment when the man could encounter the Lord in the cool of the day (Gen 3:8).   

The Bible communicates in many places the notion of the daylight hours as hours of work and the night time hours as hours of rest, and Jesus Himself affirmed it,

Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.” (Jn 11:9)

I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no man can work.” (Jn 9:4)

 This creative pattern is instructive to humanity. It reminds us that even prior to the entry of sin, we were always designed to serve as children of the light and not as children of the darkness.

 However after the Fall the contrast between light and darkness will take on an added moral dimension, now serving to contrast the good with the evil.

 Since sin ruined God’s perfect world the hours of darkness have taken on a sinister aspect. Amongst fallen men, night often serves not as the God-ordained time of rest, but rather as a time for the exercising of his restless evil.   

 Night in Scripture is the time of sexual seduction (Prov 7:6-9) and of drunkenness (1 Thess 5:7). It is also dramatically shown to be the hour of betrayal (Lk 22:53). 

 Darkness is the hour when wickedness prowls the earth, a time when honest men are about their beds and bad men are about their business. Men stumble in the darkness (Jn 11:9-10), and yet despite this continue to love the darkness rather than the light (Jn 3:19). 

 Good men in contrast perform their honest labours in the full glare of day since they have nothing to hide (Jn 18:20).



The Genesis pericope’s other provision for times of both labour and rest is seen in the hallowing of the seventh day.  

 Sadly in most of our heated deliberations on the six days we tend to forget that it the seventh day which is actually highlighted by the text as being the most important one!
 
 A central purpose of the passage was to institute in human society a seven-day week with particular emphasis on the final weekday as a day of rest.

God’s stated “rest” on this seventh day is given as the model for own working pattern.  His rest however must be understood only as a cessation of ex nihilo creation activity or else as a “rest of achievement, not inactivity” (Kidner) for the Creator remains constantly at work nurturing His creation (Col 1:17).

The seven-day week is a product of divine revelation.

 Most of our measurements of time could be derived from natural phenomena alone without any reference to the Bible. Hence we arrive at a 24 hour day from a single rotation of the earth, at the month from the phases of the moon, and the year from the cycle of the four seasons.

 However there are no strikingly obvious examples of the seven day week in nature.Instead it seems that this seven day cycle comes to us only through special revelation.

 In fact history records how Godless civilisations such as Ancient Rome, Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union have experimented at various times with alternative work cycles such as five, nine or ten day weeks; but none of these was able to be successfully imposed. It seems that we are “hard-wired” for a seven-day week!

And God instituted this week to operate as a recurring 6-1 cycle with six days of work followed by a day of rest. This 6-1 cycle intermeshes with the day/night provision to serves as our divinely-ordained labour/rest cycle. 


 This notion of rest, so integral to the creation narrative is subsequently taken up in the later scriptures.     

  From the time of its codification in the Mosaic code (Exo 20:8 Dt 5:12), the Sabbath rest was a most serious component of Israelite life with the consistent penalty for its transgression being death (Num 15:32-36).

 During the wilderness sojourn the collection of the manna was to take place for six days only, God arranging a weekly double-miracle to supply their wants in order to re-enforce the importance of the Sabbath day’s rest (Exo 16:5).

But the curse of the Fall was work without profit (Gen 3:17-19) and it has applied to Man’s spiritual labours every bit as much as his material.  Just as Man was doomed to exhausting physical toil with few rewards so he was spiritually burdened also, crushed by righteous requirements he was powerless to meet.

 It is noteworthy that one place in Israelite life that was to know no rest was the operation of the sacrificial system within the Tabernacle/Temple. There was no provision for a seat amongst the paraphernalia of the Tabernacle since there was no use for one: the priests never sat down because their work was never finished.  It could never be finished because in itself it was accomplishing nothing (Heb 10:1-4)!

 Although this Mosaic sacrificial activity was instituted by God it still shared with its many pagan counterparts the same essential futility in terms of ultimate outcome.  Man works ceaselessly to please God and yet his labours are not only ineffective but actually counter-productive.

 All of his labour is poisoned by sin to such an extent that a holy God can take no pleasure in it. Hence the very works that Man hopes will satisfy Heaven’s requirements are instead helping to store up wrath for him on the day of judgement!  


 By the time of Jesus the prohibitions of the Sabbath had been so extended that the God-given proscription was now surrounded by a protective array of man-made laws.

 The observance of the Sabbath was a perennial flashpoint between Jesus and His enemies with the clashes prompted not by the legitimate obedience required by the Law,  but rather by the Pharisees elaborate additions to that Law.

The most dramatic encounter of them all takes place in John’s Gospel chapter 5.

To understand the heated dialogue there it is necessary to have some background knowledge in the rabbinical thought of the time.  The theologians of the day had wrestled with the apparent problem of God’s seeming-to violate His own Sabbath by continuing His work each seventh day.

 The scholars were forced to the conclusion that God is a legitimate Sabbath-breaker since He must continue to uphold everything He has made and to work out His purposes day by day. He has the right to work ceaselessly therefore, concluded the rabbis! 

 Jesus draws on their understanding when He is criticized by the Jews for healing a man on the Sabbath. Only God had the prerogative to do so since His work never ceases.

             My Father is working until now, and I am working” (Jn 5:17)

His statement was a clear assertion of deity and they understood it as such (v18).


 But after the Gospels, something extraordinary happens to the Sabbath day observance - it disappears!

 If congregational gatherings ever took place in the infant Church on Saturdays the Scriptures nowhere record the fact.  Instead the believers are always seen as meeting on the first day of the week – Sunday- instead (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). Clearly this was in commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus.    

 It is significant that of the Ten Commandments given to Moses, nine are explicitly affirmed by the New Testament epistles as still being in force, with only the fourth relating to the Sabbath never mentioned in terms of ongoing obligation for the Church.

Instead we see the Sabbath reinterpreted by the writer to the Hebrews as a metaphor of our salvation in Christ,

For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.” (Heb 4:4-5).

The writer saw that for the Christian believer the Sabbath had taken on an exciting new meaning. He indicates to us that the rest enjoyed by God on the seventh day is a rest that He had fore-ordained His weary people to enter into also! 

 The writer ties in the Genesis account with the Israelites’ failure to enter the “rest” of the Promised Land under Moses. But even after the eventual entry into the land under Joshua the obtaining of true rest remained elusive.

           There remains therefore a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (Heb 4:9 NIV)

This rest is not merely a relief from sojourning in the wilderness, nor that respite afforded by the settled comforts and security of Canaan.

No, this is a spiritual rest from the crushing burdens of God's Law, one which has been purchased for them by Christ on the Cross.
 
Jesus is our Sabbath rest.

 The entry into whom was signified by His cry from the Cross of “It is finished!”  He had indeed finished His own work and by doing so He had established forever our righteousness before a holy God.

 His accomplishment marked the end of all of our futile religious labours and the relinquishing of the interminable, hopeless struggle to please God through self-effort.

 Hebrews graphically pictures Christ returning triumphantly from His labours and seated at the right hand of the Father,  

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:11-12)

 Only Jesus as the perfect High Priest could sit down because only Jesus could eternally complete His work.  That work was the purchasing for us of a full and complete salvation that has not been worked for, nor could ever be earned by us.

He who rested from His creative labours on the seventh day now rests from His redemptive labours also.

And we rest also for we are complete in Him.

Two aspects of our rest are especially observed by Pink,

“The first may be designated rest of conscience, which the convicted sinner, groaning beneath the intolerable load of his conscious sins, obtains when he casts himself on the mercy of Christ. The second is rest of soul, which alas, many professing Christians know very little, if anything about. It is obtained by taking Christ’s “yoke” upon us and “learning” of Him.”

                                                                  An Exposition of Hebrews A W Pink

 This does not mean that there are no works for us to perform whilst we are here (Eph 2:10; Js 2:14-20) but our labours flow out of our salvation rather than being an attempt to obtain a salvation as it is with the dead religions of the world.   

He offers to us this Sabbath rest today   

     “Come to Me all you who labour and are heavily-burdened and I will give you rest

                                                                                                                       (Mt 11:28)

 The Sabbath rest Jesus represents is not a temporary break from punishing religious efforts at self-redemption, but rather the permanent cessation of all of our vain human attempts to satisfy God’s righteous requirements.

Those requirements have been fully met by Christ Himself and are imputed to us only by faith.This renders null and void every works-based religious system and gives the believer the confidence that, in Christ, the work of redemption truly is finished!

 Now all of our days are to be lived in the wonder of the Creator God who in Christ Jesus redeemed us from our own pitiful efforts to meet His righteous standards. 

Our Sabbath has been gloriously fulfilled. 
 
 Remember that the next time someone wants to argue with you about the age of the earth.