Will the real Sabbath please stand up?

While Seventh Day Baptists willingly cease from our labours on the seventh-day Sabbath, I hear quite a deal of confusion by the broader Christian world. It seems that the broad Christian world is quite confused about Sabbath. 

  • Is Sabbath of, by and for Jews? Is the seventh-day Sabbath a Jewish Sabbath?
  • Is Sabbath a command that must be obeyed? 
  • Is Sabbath a command that was abolished at the cross?
  • Is Sabbath a work of the law?
  • Is Sabbath a tiresome burden that was imposed on Israel but whose yoke has been graciously removed from “the Church”? 
  • Is Sabbath an institution that can be hatched, matched and dispatched by the will of a man claiming to speak for God? 
  • Is Sabbath an end time test of loyalty to the true Creator God? 
  • Does Sabbath represent a freedom from works-righteousness, in which all believers rest by faith on a 24x7 basis?
  • Is Sabbath a shadow or a type of Christ?
  • Is Jesus my Sabbath rest?
  • Is Sabbath an eschatological future age in which we dwell in the Presence of God?
  • Is Sabbath a free gift from God offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis?
  • Is Sabbath a principle that can be applied to any one-seventh of the week?

And I’m sure there are plenty of other views out there too. There’s a lot of confusion here. You just want to ask: “Will the real Sabbath please stand up?”

Most Christians know nothing of the experience of a Biblical Sabbath. And many Sabbatarians would sheepishly rather talk about something else, something more “relevant,” than the Sabbath.

This morning we’re going to explore the continuity and validity of “Sabbath-ing” in the Christian age.

Historical background

The middle of the first century was a time of radical change for members of “the Way.” Originally a Jewish revivalist sect, they had been challenged by the Holy Spirit to embrace Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ (Acts 6:7). At first, they had been extremely tentative to accept non-Jews (Acts 15:1, 2), and the issue had escalated into a full-scale ecclesiastical council (Acts 15:4–21). Now, a few years down the track, Christians were being led to examine the theological meaning and consequences of Christ’s death and resurrection. This was leading them to reconsider all the Jerusalem temple services, realising that they had been superseded by a better sacrifice (Hebrews 9:23).

Whenever you have a group of people who work, rest or play together, it’s the changes that cause the most friction. Whenever you have an established way of doing things, keeping doing those things doesn’t get talked about that much. It’s the things you change that gets talked about lots.

So it was with the New Testament scripture. The New Testament is a collection of literature that is all grappling with the questions of “what happened?”, “what does it mean?” “what now?” and “what’s next?” For the New Testament, all of these questions were directed around the Christ event—His birth, life, death and resurrection—and His plans and purposes for the congregations of His followers.

Things that change get a lot of air-time. Things that don’t change that much, don’t get that much attention. This is as true back then as it is today. So, when we have a passage that addresses an otherwise undiscussed topic, it becomes extremely valuable to us. It has such a high value because it is the key passage in the New Testament clarifies the role, function, purpose and continuity of “Sabbath-ing.” 

Let us strive to enter God’s rest

Let’s read this passage through.

“To whom did [God] swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

“While the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,

‘As I swore in my wrath,

“They shall not enter my rest,”’

“although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 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.’

“Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

‘Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.’

“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 3:18–4:11).

This passage is woven from quotations from and references to passages from Genesis, Exodus, Joshua and Psalms. Let’s work through this passage, section by section, and reacquaint ourselves with the key passages to which it is referring, as well as the underlying story that it assumes its audience knows very well.

The theme

“While the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Hebrews 4:1–2).

The theme is the necessity to respond to the gospel with faith, belief and obedience. Faith, belief and obedience are all used as synonyms . The idea is that if you hear God, you will believe; if you believe, you will respond with faith; if you respond with faith, you will obey Him. If you don’t obey, then you obviously haven’t responded in faith, which means you didn’t believe, which implies that you really didn’t hear God properly at all. 

So, within this passage hearing, faith, belief and obedience are all presented as synonymous descriptions of someone faithful to God. 

The promise

“For we who have believed enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:3a).

The promise is very simple: It is that those who receive the gospel with faith, belief and obedience will enter God’s rest.

In other words, if you hear God, and believe Him, you can enter God’s rest.

The purpose of the remainder of the passage is to sketch out exactly what God’s rest actually means. And to do that, it leans heavily on scriptural narrative.

The complication

“To whom did [God] swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief…

… as he has said,

‘As I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest,”’" (Hebrews 3:18, 4:3b).

This passage is referring to the time when Israel came to the border of Canaan. (You can read about it in Numbers 13 & 14). 

Moses sent 12 spies into the land. Ten of them came back with false reports. This caused the Israelites to completely lose faith in the God who had led them out of Egypt, who had opened the path through the Red Sea, who had drowned Pharaoh’s entire army, horse and chariot, who had appeared as a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of cloud by night, who had spoken to them from the mountain-top in Sinai, and who had appeared in His glory to them within the sanctuary.

The congregation of Israel decided that they wanted a new leader to lead them back to Egypt. And to ensure they got their way, they picked up stones to stone Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb.

As a result, God declared that none of the generation of people who had complained and rebelled would enter the land. Instead, they would wander the wilderness for forty years, until every last person of that generation, other than Joshua and Caleb, would die in the wilderness.

After forty years of wilderness wandering, when Moses brought the children of Israel back to the Canaanite border, he made it quite clear that the rest God intended for them to have would be found in the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 3:20; 12:9, 10; 25:19). After Moses’ death, Joshua addressed the people, and reminded them of what Moses had said.

Joshua said,

“Remember the word that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, saying, ‘The Lord your God is providing you a place of rest and will give you this land’” (Joshua 1:13).

So, the people were promised not only a land flowing with milk and honey, but a land in which they would receive rest from all their enemies, a miraculous rest promised by and provided by God Himself.

The puzzle

So far, so good. The passage has been quite simple, quite straight forward. But now the author of Hebrews leaps back in time, seemingly changing the topic of conversation. For he writes,

“‘As I swore in my wrath,

“They shall not enter my rest,”’ 

although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.’” (Hebrews 4:3b, 4).

For a reason we’ll see soon, the author of Hebrews has leapt all the way back to creation.

After six days of creation, God had finished making everything in the world, and it was very good (Genesis 1:31). 

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 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” (Genesis 2:1–3).

God, who is holy, separate from His creation, separated a day, blessing it, and making it holy, because God had rested from all his work.

The author of Hebrews is equating the place of rest Israel was looking forward to, with the finished work of God in creation. In other words, it’s like he’s saying that God had already finished preparing the rest He intended for Israel during creation week. God had already prepared it, because God Himself had entered into that rest.

So, the rest Israel was looking for was already prepared for them. God had it ready. But they didn’t enter into it because of unbelief. Therefore,

“‘They shall not enter my rest’” (Hebrews 4:5b).

The clue

The next section is easier to understand if we read the sentences out of order.

“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on” (Hebrews 4:8).

While Joshua did lead the children of Israel into the land of Canaan, Israel never really obtained rest from all their enemies. You find that all through the books of Joshua, Judges and I and II Samuel there is a significant struggle against the inhabitants of the land.

Then, when God is speaking with David, God pretty much tells David that the rest the people were looking forward to is still future.

God said to David,

“I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies” (2 Samuel 7:10, 11).

As a result, David wrote in Psalm 95 that the invitation to enter God’s rest was still available. So this is what the explanation in the next sentence of Hebrews is about.

“Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, ‘Today,’ saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

‘Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts’” (Hebrews 4:6, 7).

The exhortation

To summarise so far:

  1. God prepared a rest for His people when He created the world.
  2. God invited Israel to enter it, and they responded with unbelief, so they couldn’t enter.
  3. God invites everyone—including you and me—who hears His voice to enter that rest.
  4. Those who believe, enter that rest.
  5. But some people have not yet entered that rest. 

The author of Hebrews is exhorting those who have not yet entered God’s rest to not harden their hearts, but instead to respond in faith to His voice. In fact, he exhorts his readers to be diligent in seeking to enter God’s rest:

“Let us therefore strive [be diligent] to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11).

So, that’s the main message of the passage. The pastoral concern is that when you hear God’s voice, that you respond to Him in faith, belief and obedience, so that you too may enter God’s rest, which He prepared for you from the creation of the world.

What is God’s rest like?

The two verses we haven’t yet read tell us what God’s rest is like.

“So then, there remains a Sabbath-ing for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:9, 10).

Previously, every time we read the word rest, the Greek used the word katapausis, which is the Greek word for rest. But this time, instead of katapausis, the author has transliterated the Hebrew word sabbat. And then he’s added an extension to the word, -mos, which is roughtly equivalent to the English “-ing”. So this word literally says, “sabbath-ing”.

Now, the Greek word for remains literally means, “left behind.” So, this passage literally says,

“So then, there is left behind a Sabbath-ing for the people of God.”

Do you note who it is for? It’s for everyone who belongs to the people of God. Are you a member of the people of God? If so, then there is a Sabbath-ing left behind for you.

What does the author of Hebrews mean by being left behind? Well, later in Hebrews (see chapter 8) he discusses something that is old, fading away and ready to disappear. This stands in contrast to that—he’s specifically saying that Sabbath-ing is left behind, it remains. While other things fade away and disappear Sabbath-ing remains.

When people say, “There’s no commandment telling me I must keep the Sabbath in the New Testament” I have two thoughts. My first thought is that I think they’ve missed the point as to what Sabbath is and what it means (and we’ll address that in the next message). But as for why there is not a command to keep the Sabbath, it’s because there doesn’t need to be one. Sabbath-ing is left behind, it remains, it persists, it’s something God set aside and blessed for our benefit (Mark 2:27).

Now, we might ask, why did this author use the word “Sabbath-ing” rather than the normal Greek word for rest. Well, he used it because he is communicating that the experience of Sabbath-ing communicates the reality of the permanent rest that God has prepared for us from the creation of the world. He uses it because he is drawing from the audience’s experience of Sabbath-ing to paint a rich and varied canvas of meanings as to what that rest means.

For Sabbath was set aside by a holy God, and blessed, in order that blessings may be conveyed to those who receive it by faith. 

Conclusion

Be assured that Sabbath-ing remains for the people of God in the New Covenant. Our experience of Sabbath-ing paints the picture of the rest God blessed and set aside for us at the creation of the world, and that He invites each and every one of us to enter.

Those who hear His voice—and respond in faith, believe Him and obey Him—enter that rest.

And next time, we’ll paint a fuller picture of exactly what this continuing experience of Sabbath-ing tells us about God’s complete and total rest that He intends for you to have.

 

 

References

This message is based on Hebrews 3:18–4:11.

 

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