In John 5:17 Jesus tells the Judean religious leaders why He heals on the sabbath. He tells them that it is because His Father has been working until that time, and therefore so must He. It seems like a strange thing for the Lord of the Sabbath to say. The fact that Jesus’ works, and continues to do so on the Sabbath, must have some significance.
Because of my long association with a group that believed in keeping the Ten Commandments in their most literal sense, I have done a great deal of thinking about the “sabbath” command over the years.
To be sure, I am still puzzled by the Evangelical Protestant need to think of Sunday as the sabbath God commanded. The New Covenant either requires or does not require sabbath-keeping, depending on your point-of-view. If it does, then Sunday is not the day. Personally, I do not see a literal seventh-day sabbath as a binding requirement on non-Jewish (or non-Israelite, if you prefer) Christians.
The concept of sabbath, however, is important for a Christian to understand, because it relates to the foundational story for the Christian world-view. I hope to make that connection clear in this post.
We read in Genesis 2 that God rests from His work of creation on the seventh day. He blesses the seventh day and makes it holy. There is no record, however, of God actually giving human beings a weekly sabbath of resting at that point. It seems to have been God’s own personal property at that point. (Yes, I know that many people interpret the blessing of sabbath as meaning that it was given to human beings – but that’s not actually what it says.)
It is not very long before God’s restful companionship with human beings is interrupted by human sin, and Adam and Eve must be expelled from the Garden of Eden, the location they were placed in as God’s rest begins. Their relatively light work of caring for the garden now becomes a burden of making their own living from the soil. They have moved out of God’s rest and into toil.
From here on in, God must work to bring humanity back into a restful relationship of cooperation with Him that will benefit (instead of destroy) all of creation (see Romans 8:18-23). This is why Jesus replies as He does in John 5. He is at work to bring us back to Him, in order that He may once again rest from His work of creation. At that point, humanity will have entered His rest.
The weekly sabbath given to Israel was only a signpost to a far greater kind of rest. A rest in which God re-boots the entire creation and gives redeemed humanity a fresh start in a new heavens and new earth (Rev. 20 & 21). God’s own rest as He dwells with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, allowing humanity to undertake the task of caring for His creation as He intended from the beginning when He blessed Adam and Eve with the command to subdue the earth.
The first account of the sabbath being given to human beings comes in Exodus 20, as part of the Ten Commandments given to Israel at Mt. Sinai. I think that because God was inviting them to be His holy people, a kind of nation of priests, he wanted them to have some of the holy things that had belonged exclusively to Him, such as a representation of the heavenly Holy of Holies and a representation of His sabbath rest.
The letter to the Hebrews seems to have been a sermon built around the theme of entering God’s rest. Its premise is based on the incident where Israel refused to enter the Promised Land because of a bad report from 10 of the 12 spies. Just as the Israelites refused to enter the Promised Land due to disbelief that caused disobedience, a modern Christian may also fail to enter God’s eternal rest due to disobedience caused by unbelief.
This is not an exact parallel to a direct refusal to enter a land. It is an illustration that suggests that Jesus expects His disciples to evidence a pattern of obedience to Him through obedience to His Holy Spirit in their lives.
You can’t fool Jesus. He is the Word of God. He is sharper than a two-edged sword and is able to disern every believer’s intent down to its very core.
He is the One who stands at the entrance to the Rest to judge whether or not you enter. Judgment has begun at the household of God. The scariest passages about the consequences of not living up to our calling are to be found here in the Book of Hebrews.
With this in mind, how then shall we live?