Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University
A PERSONAL NOTE. This is the nineth installment of the SABBATH UPDATES series. In the previous installments I have examined the Pope's call for a revival of Sunday observance, an article "Why the Lord's Day Matters to Me?," written by a former SDA and published in SUNDAY, the official publication of the Lord's Day Alliance, and Ratzlaff's arguments about the Sabbath is a Mosaic institution which served, like circumcision, as a sign of the Old Covenant that terminated at the Cross. If you wish to receive the previous 8 installments feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org We will be glad to email to you the complete set of documents.
The appreciation for the material that has been posted has surpassed my fondest expectations. The SABBATH UPDATES mailing list has grown from 0 to well over 3000 names in less than a month and continues to grow at the rate of over 100 names a day. I would like to take this opportunity to express my wholehearted appreciation to all of you who have emailed me heartwareming messages reassuring me that you are praying for me. I want you to know that it means a lot to me to know that many are praying that God may give me the wisdom, not only to deal with questions raised against the Sabbath, but also to help many discover the mental, physical, social, and spiritual benefits the observance of the Sabbath is designed to provided to our tension-filled and restless lives.
Among those receiving these SABBATH UPDATES are ministers and members of other denominations, about 60 current pastors of the Worldwide Church of God (easy to recognize because they email is @wcg.org), and numerous former Sabbathkeepers who receive this material via friends. It is a moving experience for me to read every day messages from former Adventists who tell me that while reading these Sabbath updates the Spirit has brought a renewed conviction to their heart to recommit themselves to the Lord by honoring Him on His Holy Day. These messages give me the incentive to continue this ministry of sharing the knowledge I have gained during the past 25 years of research of this largely forgotten divine institution.
Ratzlaff has already replied to my last response (part 8 of the series), but his few brief comments are interspersed throughout the document which is too long (57k) for some servers. Many members of this mailing list use Juno as their provider and and cannot receive files longer than 50K. Thus I plan to pull out Ratzlaff's comments and deal with them without resposting the whole document which you have already received. Hopefully I will get this done within the next two or three days.
Clay Peck also has graciously emailed to me a lengthy statement where he clarifies his understanding of the Sabbath in the light of the New Covenant. His statement reflects what he has written in his book NEW COVENANT CHRISTIANS which I plan to examine. In his message Peck stresses that he prefers to speak of the fulfilment of the Sabbath in Christ, rather than of the abrogation of the Sabbath by Christ. This is essentially the position of Ratzlaff also. In actual fact there is no essential difference between "the fulfilment" and the "abrogation" view of the Sabbath, because the "fulfilment" is understood in the sense of termination of the obligation to observe the Sabbath since Christ is supposed to be for the Christian the salvation-rest.
In a separate essay I plan to address this popular but deceptive view by examining this important question: Did Christ fulfill the Sabbatical typologies of Messianic redemption by terminating the function of the Sabbath or by actualizing and enriching its redemptive function? Anyone interested in a preview of my response, is welcomed to read chapter 5 of DIVINE REST FOR HUMAN RESTLESSNESS and chapter 4 of THE SABBATH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. Both chapters deal specifically with the redemptive meaning and function of the Sabbath in both the Old and New Testaments.
In the last installment I briefly responded to Ratzlaff's contention that the Sabbath, like circumcision, was a temporary Old Covenant sign whose function terminated with the coming of Christ. In this essay I address two basic questions: (1) Was the Sinaitic covenant "characteristically a law covenant" as Ratzlaff and Peck claim, or was it a revelation of God's grace by which the Lord consecrated a people to himself under the sanctions of His royal law? (2) Why God did choose not only the physical sign of circumcision, but also the temporal (time) sign of the Sabbath to help believers experience the covenant relationship of mutual belonging? A study of the latter question will help us appreciates why the Apostolic church recognized the termination of circumcision on the one hand and the continuation of the Sabbath on the other hand. The latter question will be addressed in a future essay.
THE MOSAIC COVENANT AS AN ADMINISTRATION OF GRACE
The need for a theological reflection on the meaning of the Old Covenant in general and of the Sabbath as sign of the covenant in particular, was suggested to me by reading chapter 3 "The Old Covenant," of Ratzlaff's THE SABBATH IN CRISIS. In this chapter Ratzlaff attempts to show that though "the redemptive event of the exodus . . . serves as foundation of Israel's law"(p.28), in reality the Old Covenant "is characteristically a law covenant" (p. 50). In fact he identifies the Old Covenant with the Ten Commandments in general and the Sabbath in particular. He wrote: "We may look at the covenant documents in three ways: the Ten Commandment are the very WORDS OF THE COVENANT, the book of the law is the COVENANTINTERPRETED to the life situations of the Israelites, and the Sabbath is the COVENANT REDUCED TO A SIGN or dynastic seal"(p. 38).
The problems I see with Ratzlaff's interpretation of the Old Covenant in general and of the Sabbath in particular, are twofold. First, he ignores the fact that though the Sinaitic Covenant is "characteristically a law covenant," its function was to ADMINISTER GRACE. Second, he fails to appreciate why God chose the Sabbath as the covenant sign of sanctification of the believer (Ex 31:13). A study of the latter question will help us appreciate the permanent nature of the Sabbath. Let me deal with these two problems in their respective order.
For Ratzalff the Old Covenant is not only "primarily law, but it is law in GREAT DETAIL. This covenant law does not simply ask people to bring an offering to the Lord, but it spells out exactly what kind of offering to bring. . . (Lev 23:19). This law does not simply say to bring a ceral offering, but it tells how much cereal to bring and how to mix it. . . . (Lev 23:13) . . ." (p. 47). The legalistic nature of the Old Covenant is further reflected, according to Ratzlaff, in the serious punishment meted out for violating covenant stipulations. He lists 19 offenses for which a violators could be "cut off" (pp.45-46).
It is evident that for Ratzlaff is hard to accept that God should be so specific in the Mosaic legislation when he believes that in the New Covenant everything is simply reduced to the principle of love. The impression one gets from reading Ratzlaff's explanation of the Sinaitic covenant is that it was an irrational collections of detail laws, burdensome to the people. The implication of this interpretation is that God, the Lawgiver, was irrational by burdening the people with so many restrictive ceremonial, social and civil specific laws.
Ratzlaff ignores that laws cannot be separated from the Lawgiver. If the system of moral, religious, social, and civil laws God gave to the Israelites were far too detailed and cumbersome, then God was unwise in burdening the people with an unresonable amount of detail laws. Before accusing God of being unwise, it would be wiser for any Bible student to seek to understand why God chose to protect His people with some many laws.
Laws are needed to establish and maintain order. At Creation, God sent forth His word to create order. At Sinai, God sent forth His word to renew humans and prepare them for a new order. Psalm 147 reflects this Biblical holistic correlation between God's word that governs the natural order and the moral life of God's people: "He send his word and melts them; he stirs up his breezes, and the water flow. He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decreeds to Israel" (Ps 147:18-19). In this text the divine word that creates is the same divine word that reveals the laws to Israel.
Contrary to Ratzlaff's negative view of the Sinaitic laws, the saints in the Old Testament rejoiced in the revelation of God's law, because for them it was a revelation of God's love and grace: "Blessed is the man [whose] "delight is the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night" (Ps 1:2).
The detailed regulations of the Sinaitic covenant was God's way of shaping Israel into a counter-cultural community. The Lord consecrated Israel to be a witness to the nations by showing them how to mirrow His perfection by obeying His laws . The legal system of any nation reveals the culture of that people. Through the legal system that God gave Israel, the godly came to know how to reflect God's love, compassion, fidelity, and purity. For example, no other nation included among its statute books regulations for the kind treatment of dependent workers and emacipation of its slaves on the sabbatical year. Such regulations are only found in the theocratic government of Israel, because the Iraelites regarded their laws, not as "dead legalism," but as a revelation of God's concern for the poor and less fortunate.
"It is important to stress again," writes Willem VanGemeren, "that the Law in the Old Testament is not against the Gospel. It is an expression of God's care. In the interest of teaching his children how to develop wholesome relations with one another, He [God] detailed for them his expectations in laws, statutes, and ordinances" (THE LAW, THE GOSPEL, AND THE MODERN CHRISTIAN, p. 29).
What Ratzlaff fails to realize in his discussion of the Old Covenant, is that the law was never intended to be an end to itself, but a revelation of God's grace by which the Lord consecrated a people to himself under the sanctions of His royal law. The function of God's law is essentially the same during the whole course of redemptive history, although a distinction must be made between the apodictic law, that is the moral principles of the Ten Commandments which are permanent, and the casuistic laws, that is, the applications of these principles to particular social and historic situations, which are changeable.
The Decalogue is a revelation of God's love in the sense that both its negative and positive injunctions are designed not to restrict life but to ensure its fulness. I am greatly distressed by the fact that both you and Peck argue for the replacement of the moral laws of the Old Covenant with the generic principle of love which you call "A Better Law" in the very title of chapter 13. You writes: "In the new covenant God's requirements are given in basic principles, 'This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you" (p. 105). On a similar vein Peck writes: "Contrast those old covenant regulations with the simple command of the new covenant: 'A new command I give you: Love one another' (John 13:34) (p. 17).
But is not the new command to love God and fellowbeings the essence of the Ten Commandments? Is not this new command already spelled out in the Old Testament (see Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18)? The prophet Micah asks rhetorically: "What does the Lord require of you?" He then responds summarizing the law of Moses, saying: "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly before God" (Mic 6:8). Is this this Old Testament "new commandment" the same as the "new command" of Jesus? It is evident that Jesus had to repeat it because it had been largely forgotten.
Where do Ratzlaff and Peck find in the New Testament that Christ instituted "A Better Law" or "a simple command" superior to that of the Old Covenant? Does not Paul declare that "the [Old Testament] law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good' (Rom 7:12)? Does not Paul take the demands of the moral law for granted when he states unequivocally: "We know that the law is good" (1 Tim 1:8). I would urge both of you to read chapter 6 of THE SABBATH IN THE NEW TESTAMENT entitled "Paul and the Law." There you will find a rational way to reconcile Paul's statements condemning the law with those commending the law. The solution is to be found not in assuming that Paul rejects the law in favor of the principle of love, but in recognizing that Paul rejects the law ONLY as a METHOD OF SALVATION, but not as the STANDARD OF CHRISTIAN CONDUCT. It is unfortunate that both of you men use the Bible as a cafeteria choosing what you like and leaving what you don't. But a responsible study of the Bible requires an examination and resolution of apparent contradictory statements.
Ratzlaff states that under the New Covenant the Christian "walks according to the Spirit" and not according to the law (p. 205) because "the law no longer applies to one who has died with Christ" (p. 207). This argument is senseless, to say the least. I hate to admit it, but for me it is a pain to read his book simply because I find it so irrational. This is why I could never bring myself to read the manuscript that Ratzlaff graciously sent me. He jump to gratuitous conclusions all the time which are not supported by the texts you are using. Furthermore, he fails to look at questions in their broader Biblical scope because he wants to fit everything into your preconsceived Old and New Covenants arbitrary categories.
Honestly, what distresses me is not the fact that Ratzlaff presents a differing view point. For me it is always a stimulating to read a scholarly study that challenges my conclusions, if the author is coherent and deals with the Biblical data according to accepted canons of Biblical investigation. In Ratzlaff case, both are missing. Believe me, this makes my task of examining his book a depressing and distressing experience that I find it hard to endure. The reason I bring myself to read this book, it is simply because of its influence upon many uncritical minded people. A neurologist in Texas told me recently that only 5% of people think. 15% think that they think and 80% do anything but think. This explains why so many senseless teachings are spreading today like wildfire.
Ratzlaff is correct in arguing that Spirit of Christ does guide the Christian in all truth and godliness (pp. 205-207), but the Spirit does not operate in a vacuum. The function of the Spirit is not to replace the law, but to help the believer to live in obedience to the law of God (Gal 5: 18, 22-23). Eldon Ladd, a highly respected Evangelical scholar, clearly acknowledges that "more than once he [Paul] asserts that it is the new life of the Spirit that enables the Christian truly to fulfill the Law (Rom 8:3,4; 13:10; Gal 5:14)" (THEOLOGY OF NT, p. 518). Ladd concludes his analysis of Paul's view of the law, saying: "Christ has brought the Law as a way of righteousness and ceremonial code to its end; but the Law as the expression of the will of God is permanent; and the man indwelt by the Holy Spirit and thus energized by love is enabled to fulfill the Law" (p. 510).
Paul clearly explains that Spirit illumines and energizes the believer "in order that the just requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (Rom 8:4). Guidance by the Spirit without the respect for the law of God can be dangerous to Christian growth, because it can degenerate into irresponsible behavior. I submit that this is a fundamental problem of the New Covenant theology espoused by Ratzlaff, Peck and countless Evangelicals today, a theology that ultimately makes each person a law unto himself. E. F. Kevan rightly observes: "It must be never forgotten that Law and obedience are merely the form of the moral life . . . To ignore the form is to lapse into a mystical piety which may soon become a cloak for impiety" (THE EVANGELICAL DOCTRINE OF THE LAW, p. 28). I would urge you brethren to take time to reflect upon this profound statement.
WHY DID GOD CHOOSE THE SABBATH AS A SIGN OF THE COVENANT?
The preceding discussion was designed to help us appreciate the continuity of the moral law in the New Covenant. In reality there is only one covenant, because God's covenant commitment to save penitent sinners has never changed. This is why the Bible speaks of "the blood of the eternal covenant" (Heb 13:10).
At this junture we wish to shift our reflection on why has God chosen the Sabbath to serve as a permanent sign of the Covenant. I am posting these reflections because I found Ratzlaff and Peck's treatment of the Sabbath very negative. It is hard to believe that two former Adventist pastors have very little positive to say about the Sabbath. It is evident that in their understanding and experience the Sabbath has been more a day of frustration than of joyful celebration of god's creative and redemptive love. I fervently hope and pray that the following reflections will help you brethren, to catch a fresh glimpse of how the Sabbath can help you to conceptualize and internalize your covenant commitment to God.
In the Bible several covenant signs or symbols are given to remind human beings of God's concern for them and of their commitment to God. The rainbow was given to Noah as a covenant sign (Gen. 9:8-17). Circumcision was offered as a covenant sign to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 17:1-4). Bread and wine were chosen by Christ as the emblems "of the new covenant" ratified through His blood (Mark 16:24; Matt. 26:28). These signs have been given during the history of salvation to reassure human beings of God's concern to save them and to restore them to fellowship with Him. One might say that the covenant concept, which is introduced in the OT and renewed and ratified by Christ in the NT, represents God's everlasting promise and plan to save a people who in turn will extend salvation to others. This concept is expressed incisively by Peter when he writes, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (I Peter 2:9; cf. Deut. 20:10; Gen. 12:2-3).
It is noteworthy that among the various God-given convenant signs, the Sabbath occupies a unique place. It is unique because it is not an object or a place accessible only to a few, but a day (time) available to all. It is unique also because it has functioned as the symbol par excellence of the divine election and mission of God's people. Five times in the Scripture the Sabbath is designated as a perpetual covenant" or as a "sign" between Yahweh and His people (Ex. 31:13, 16, 17; Ezek. 20:12, 20).
The Sabbath is also a unique covenant sign because it is the first sign given by God to reveal His desire to fellowship with His creatures. The day tells us that God created human beings to live not in mystical solitude but in the joy of His fellowship. It is also unique also because it has survived not only the Fall, but also the Flood, the Egyptian slavery, the Babylonian exile, the Roman persecution, the French and Russian temporary introduction of the ten-day week, blank-day calendar proposals (interrupting the weekly-cycle), antinomianism, and the current anti-Sabbatarian propaganda. The Sabbath still stands for God's people as the symbol of God's gracious provision of salvation and belonging to God.
The Sabbath is unique in reminding believers of their divine election and mission in this world. Achad Haam, a Jewish scholar, underlines this vital function of the Sabbath in the history of Judaism, stating: "We can affirm without any exaggeration that the Sabbath has preserved the Jews more than the Jews have preserved the Sabbath. If the Sabbath had not restored to them the soul, renewing every week their spiritual life, they would have become so degraded by the depressing experiences of the work-days, that they would have descended to the last step of materialism and of moral and intellectual decadence" (Quoted by Augusto Segre, in "Il Sabato nella storia Ebraica," in the symposium L'uomo nella Bibbia e nelle culture ad essa contemporanee, 1975, p. 116).
Sabbathkeeping has contributed to the survival not only of Judaism but of Christianity as well. The essence of a Christian life is a relationship with God. Such a relationship grows and becomes more meaningful, especially through the time and opportunities for worship, service, meditation, and fellowship provided by the Sabbath day. Consequently a proper observance of God's holy day reflects a healthy relationship with God, while disregard for it bespeaks spiritual decline. This was true in ancient Israel; it is also true in modern Christianity. Religious leaders understand this fundamental truth. This is why the Pope in his Pastoral Letter makes such a passionate plea for a revival of Sunday observance. It is unfortunate that the Pope seeks the help of civil Sunday Rest legislation rather than of the Biblical authority of the Fourth Commandment that can instill the needed moral convictions.
In a speech delivered on November 13, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln emphasized this vital function of the Sabbath, saying: "As we keep or break the Sabbath day, we nobly save or meanly lose the last and best hope by which man arises" (Quoted in SUNDAY 65 (1978), p. 22). Obviously for Abraham Lincoln the Sabbath day meant Sunday. Puritans applied the name and the precept of the Sabbath to Sunday. This does not detract from the fact that one of America's outstanding presidents recognized in the Sabbath precept the last and best hope that can renew and elevate human beings.
To comprehend more fully the uniqueness of the Sabbath as a covenant sign, it may help at this point to inquire why God has chosen the Sabbath (a day rather than an object) to aid human beings to experience and express a belonging relationship with Him. What characteristics does the seventh day possess that enable it to function as a meaningful sign of a covenant relationship? The Scripture suggests at least seven reasons.
A first reason for the divine choice of the Sabbath as a sign of mutual covenant commitment is the fact that the day is, to use M. G. Kline's words, the Creator's "seal of ownership and authority." (M. G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King. The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy, 1963, p. 18). As a seal of divine ownership, the Sabbath provides the legitimate basis for a covenant relationship. This meaning of ownership is explicitly expressed both in the Fourth Commandment and in its sister institutions, the sabbatical and the jubilee years. In the Commandment the believer is invited to "remember" on the Sabbath that "in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them (Ex. 20:11; 31:17). As Creator, God is the only legitimate Owner of this world. In the sabbatical and jubilee years the Israelites were enjoined to relinquish the use of the land and to liberate their fellow beings from poverty and bondage (Lev. 25; Deut. 15 :1-18), in order to acknowledge that Yahweh is the only rightful owner of the land ("The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants"-Lev. 25 :23-NIV).
As the symbol of divine ownership, the Sabbath enables the believer to realize constantly and effectively that this world and his very life belong to God. This recognition of God's ownership of one's life is indispensable for a total commitment and belonging to God. Is this not true also at the human level? Can husband and wife truly say they belong to each other, unless they are willing to say to each other, "I am yours and you are mine"? One of the pitfalls of a lifestyle characterized by husbands, wives and children working to earn separate incomes (often irrespective of need) is the false sense of independence and separate ownership it fosters. It often leads a member of the family to say: "This is my money, or my car or my house. I have worked for it, so I am free to do with it whatever I wish."
To observe the Sabbath means to confess God as Creator and Owner of all life and wealth. It means to recognize that God's total claim over one's life is expressed by consecrating the Sabbath time to God. Ownership implies boundaries; there is to be no transpassing. God has chosen to set in time the boundaries of His dominion. The believer who accepts God's claim over the last day of the week-the Sabbath-accepts God's claim over his whole life and world.
A second reason for the divine choice of the Sabbath as a sign of mutual covenant commitment is suggested by the holiness of the Sabbath. As a holy day, the Sabbath effectively exemplifies not only the divine choice of time but of people as well. The holiness of the Sabbath is frequently affirmed in the Scripture. God Himself "made it holy" (Gen. 2 :3; Ex. 20 :11) and repeatedly calls it "holy" (Ex. 16:22; 31:14; Is. 58:13). The fundamental meaning of the word "holy" appears to be "separation, setting apart" for divine manifestation. When applied to the Sabbath, it expresses the distinctiveness of the day resulting from the special manifestation of God's presence in the life of His people. Isaiah, for example, pictures God as refusing to be present at the Sabbath assembly of His people, because of their "iniquity" (Is. 1:13-14). God's absence makes their worship experience not holy but rather an "abomination" or a "trampling of my courts" (vs. 12-13).
As the symbol of God's free choice of His special time to manifest His presence, the Sabbath can constantly and effectively remind the believer who keeps it of his special divine election and mission in this world. In other words, as the Sabbath stands as the "Holy Day" among the weekly days, so the believer who keeps it is constantly invited to stand as God's chosen "Holy person" among a perverse generation. Holiness in time points to holiness of being.
Ratzlaff argues that the Sabbath is a sign of sanctification not in the sense "that the observance of the Sabbath is a sign that God makes a person holy," but in the sense that "the Sabbath is a sign that Israel was set apart or elected by God" (pp. 68-69). But can the two concepts be legitimately separated? Did not God choose the Israelites to make them a "holy nation" (Ex 19:6)? Was not the function of the Sabbath to constantly remind God's people that " I am the Lord that sanctify you" (Ex 31:13)?
It is noteworthy that the expression "to sanctify" or "to keep holy" translates the Hebrew word lekadesh, a term which is commonly used in the Talmud to describe the engagement of a woman to a man. As a woman who declared her belonging to a man was "sanctified, made holy," so a person who consecrates his or her life to the Lord is "holy," belonging exclusively to God.
The Sabbath was chosen by God as the emblem of this mutual covenant commitment, because it expresses both divine initiative and human response. On the one hand it signifies that God has chosen to sanctify His people and, on the other hand, that the latter accepts His sanctifying presence. Such an acceptance is expressed in a practical way, namely, by making oneself totally available to God on the Sabbath. The Lord does not force His presence upon anyone, but stands at the heart's door and knocks (Rev. 3:20). The Sabbath provides the opportunity to open one's door in order to welcome the Savior as the guest of honor. The person who makes himself available on the Sabbath for Christ, allowing Him to work within his life, is made different- he is sanctified.
3. Incorruptible and Universal
A third reason for God's choice of the Sabbath as a sign of mutual covenant commitment is found in the incorruptible and universal nature of time. Being time, the Sabbath is a symbol which is always fresh in meaning, and readily accessible to every human being. The Sabbath is incorruptible because it is not a material sign like the Tabernacle, or the Temple; it is immaterial since it is time rather than space or matter. The ideas which are attached to material objects in the course of time tend to deteriorate and disintegrate like the objects themselves
The meaning of the Sabbath is always fresh and relevant. In fact, it is more relevant today than when it was originally given, because its meaning and function have grown in the unfolding history of salvation. In Eden, where in a sense every day was a Sabbath (that is to say, a paradise in the presence of God), the Sabbath served to heighten the consciousness and the experience of God's presence. But today, when the week-days are spent in a difficult and hectic world, the Sabbath can be truly an island of tranquility, where one can safely harbor to regain the peace of God's presence.
Being time, the Sabbath is not only incorruptible but also universal, that is, accessible to all. Since time can be shared, God through the Sabbath can reach every human being without crowding out anyone. Thus there is no need to make a pilgrimage to Rome or to Jerusalem or to Salt Lake City, to observe the Sabbath, because the day reaches every human being weekly, whether one lives in a splendid palace or in a squalid prison. Moreover, no special objects are needed to celebrate the Sabbath. To celebrate the Passover, for example, lambs, unleavened bread 'and bitter herbs were needed. Similarly, to celebrate the Lord's Supper, bread and wine (as well as basins and water for Christians who practice footwashing) are required. These elements are not readily available to all in every circumstance.
With the Sabbath celebration, such problems do not exist, because the only thing really needed for its celebration is a heart that loves the Lord. In the offering of money there is no equality. A wealthy person is able to give a larger offering than someone who is poor. It is not so with the offering of time, because every person has an equal measure of it. This means that through the Sabbath God gives an equal opportunity to all to express belonging to Him.
4. Renewal of Baptismal Covenant
A fourth reason for God's choice of the Sabbath as a sign of mutual covenant commitment is suggested by the fact that the day provides a weekly renewal of the baptismal covenant (vow). In the NT baptism is not described in covenantal language, though it fulfils the very function of marking the entrance of the believer into the church, the new covenant community, which is the body of Christ ("we were all baptized into one body"-1 Cor. 12:13).
A reason for the limited use of the OT covenant model in the NT to describe the relation of the early Christians to one another and to Christ is suggested by the Roman prohibition of secret societies. For the Romans a covenant meant an illegal society. Christians, for reasons of prudence, may have avoided a terminology that raised suspicion of political treason. Though the distinctive OT covenant terminology is absent in the NT description of baptism, its basic concept is present. This is indicated by the association of baptism with the Exodus event (I Cor. 10 :1-2) and with circumcision (Col. 2 :11-13), both of which are clear covenant experiences.
How is the Sabbath related to the covenant experience of baptism? Basically in its meaning and function. Baptism is a symbolic reenactment of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection in the life of the believer who enters into covenant with Christ by dying to sin and rising into a new moral life (Rom. 6:3-4). Does the Sabbath share this baptismal meaning and experience of death and resurrection? Is the Sabbath, like baptism, a form of renouncement and renewal?
Like baptism, the Sabbath does signify renouncement. No two persons can become one, without renouncing certain rights in order to gain greater privileges. Through the Sabbath God invites human beings to renounce several things in order for them to receive His greater gifts. In the first place they are to renounce the security of the weekly work (Ex. 20:10), even when circumstances seem unfavorable: "in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest" (Ex. 34:21). Like baptism, the Sabbath also means renouncement of that greediness and selfishness which, though symbolically buried under the baptismal waters, continually tends to reappear and thus needs to be overcome.
Some persons have been made slaves but many more have chosen to become slaves of their grasping greediness. The latter work and would wish others to work for them all seven days out of seven, in order to gain more and more and be satisfied with less and less. The Sabbath is designed to cure such insatiable greediness by enjoining to rest, that is, to stop being greedy and start being grateful. It commands to take time not to seek more material goods but to gratefully acknowledge the bounties received. A grateful heart is indispensable for maintaining a meaningful, mutual, belonging relationship, and for experiencing inner rest and peace.
Like baptism, the Sabbath means also renouncement of selfsufficiency. The success a Christian achieves in his work may make him feel secure and self-sufficient, thus forgetful of his dependency upon God: "lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, 'who is the Lord?'" (Prov. 30:9). The Sabbath, by enjoining cessation from work, invites the believer to glance away from his own achievements and to look instead to God's work and working in him. During the week a Christian may feel worthy of salvation because of all that he does. But on the Sabbath as he ceases from his works, he becomes conscious of his human dependency upon God, recognizing that it is not his doing but God's doing that saves. The Sabbath forbids a Christian, as forcefully stated by Karl Barth, to have "faith in his own plans and wishes, in a justification and deliverance which he can make for himself, in his own ability and achievement. What it really forbids him is not work, but trust in his work" (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ET, 1956, III, part 2, p. 55).
Even as the water in baptism has the dual meaning of death and a new life, so the rest of the Sabbath signifies both renouncement and renewal. If baptism be regarded as the point of entrance into the new Christian life, the Sabbath is the weekly renewal of that initial commitment. This weekly renewal is made possible through the time the Sabbath affords to take stock and ascertain where one stands. The opportunity the Sabbath provides to have a special rendezvous with oneself, with others, and with God, results in physical, social and spiritual renewal.
A fifth reason for God's choice as a sign of mutual covenant commitment is suggested by the fact that the seventh day provides a fitting reminder of the spiritual nature of this relationship. Perhaps Jesus came closest to defining God's nature when He told the Samaritan woman, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4 :24). The context suggests that Christ described God as "Spirit" to counteract the misconception that God is to be worshiped in a special holy place.
The Sabbath contributes to prevent the deadening objectification of God and to maintaining a living relationship between God and His people. First because as a temporal sign the Sabbath aptly characterizes God's nature, since the latter is as mysterious as the nature of time. Like God, time cannot be defined or controlled. As a person can relate to time but cannot control it, so he can relate to God but cannot control Him. In other words, both God and time transcend human outreach. They cannot be manipulated and changed into something else.
Abraham Joshua Heschel characterizes time as "otherness," a mystery transcending human experience, and "togetherness," an occasion to experience fellowship (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, p. 99). Are not otherness and togetherness basic characteristics of God's nature? Being a measure of time and not an object, the Sabbath can effectively remind the believer that he belongs to the God who cannot be objectified, circumscribed or incapsulated, to the God who is "beyond," "wholly other," transcending human analogies ("To whom then will you liken God?"-Is. 40:18) and controls. At the same time, as a moment of togetherness, the Sabbath reminds the believer that his God is not only "beyond" but also very "close," so close that he can rest in Him (Heb. 4:10).
The Sabbath helps maintain a spiritual relationship with God not only, as just seen, by reminding the believer of God's nature, but also by protecting him from idolatry. Fritz Guy aptly states that "worship by means of a holy day is removed as far as possible from idolatry. It is quite impossible to cut, carve or construct the image of a day" ("Holiness in Time: A Preliminary Study of the Sabbath as Spiritual Experience," a paper presented at Andrews University, 1961, p. 5).
Some might challenge this statement by pointing to the Jews, who apparently succeeded, especially in the days of Jesus, in objectifying the Sabbath by tying its observance to minute regulations. The reduction of the Sabbath from an occasion to meet with God, to a "thing" to be kept with utmost precision, can turn the day from a means of worship into an object of worship. This adulteration of the Sabbath does not detract, however, from its unique quality, but only serves to show that even the most "fireproof" God-given symbol can be prostituted into an object of legalistic and even idolatrous worship.
Of all symbols, the Sabbath as time still remains the one that best resists objectification. It is noteworthy that both at creation and in the Ten Commandments, mankind is given not a "holy object" but a "holy day" in which to experience the holiness of God. The first Four Commandments spell out the three "don'ts" and the one "do" that should regulate the relationship between God and His people. First, don't give to God a divided loyalty by worshiping Him as One among many gods. Second, don't worship God by means of material representations. Third, don't use thoughtlessly the name of God.
Then comes the Fourth Commandment which is a "do" rather than a "don't." It invites mankind to "remember" God not through a holy object but through a holy day. The first three commandments seem designed to remove the obstacles to a true spiritual relationship with God, namely, the worship of false gods or of their images and disrespect for the true God. With the way to God's presence cleared, the Fourth Commandment invites the believer to experience divine fellowship, not through the recitation of magic charms, but in time shared to-gether.
A sixth reason for God's choice of the Sabbath as a sign of mutual covenant commitment is the fact that the day expresses effectively the mutual commitment that binds God and His people. A mutual belonging relationship can endure only if both parties remember and honor their respective obligations. How does the Sabbath express divine and human commitment?
The Sabbath stands first of all for divine commitment. God's last creative act was not the fashioning of Adam and Eve, but the creation of His rest for mankind (Gen. 2:2-3). Such a divine rest has a message for the creation as a whole as well as for humanity in particular. With regard to creation, God's rest signifies His satisfaction over the completion and perfection of His creation. With regard to humanity, God's rest symbolizes His availability to His creatures. By taking "time out" on the first Sabbath to bless the first couple with His holy presence, God through this day provides a constant reassurance to His creatures of His availability and concern.
This divine commitment becomes explicit in the covenant relationship, where the Sabbath is presented as God's assurance of His sanctifying presence among His people (Ex. 31:13; Ezek. 20:12). Human disobedience did not alter God's original commitment. On the contrary, when the estrangement caused by sin occurred, God through the Sabbath guaranteed His total commitment to restore the broken covenant relationship. This commitment led God to give "his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). The Sabbath, as Karl Barth correctly explains, "reminds man of God's plan for him, of the fact that He has already carried it out, and that in His revelation He will execute both His will with him and His work for and toward him. It points him to the Yes which the Creator has spoken to him, His creature, and which He has made true and proved true once and for all in Jesus Christ." 35
The Sabbath stands not only for divine but also for human commitment. It signifies not only "that I, the Lord, sanctify you" but also that "you shall keep my sabbaths" (Ex. 31:13). By reassuring human beings that God is available and "working until now" (John 5 :17) to accomplish the ultimate restoration of this world to His eternal fellowship, the Sabbath invites the believer to assume his responsibility, by making himself available for God. By accepting God's invitation to keep the Sabbath with Him, the believer enters into a special relationship with God.
It is by assuming this obligation that a person becomes free: free for God, for self, for the immediate family and for others. The free offering of time to God is a supreme act of worship, because it means acknowledging God with the very essence of human life: time. Life is time. When "time is up" life ceases to be. The offering of the Sabbath time to God enables the believer to acknowledge that his whole life, not just one seventh, belongs to God. It represents the Christian's response to God's claim on his life. By bringing all routine work to a halt for one day, he acts out his commitment to the Lord of his life. A similar objective is accomplished through the return of the tithe to God, as a recognition of His ultimate ownership.
A seventh reason for God's choice of the Sabbath to symbolize His covenantal relationship with His people is its redemptive function. As a symbol of God's saving activities, the Sabbath provides the basis for experiencing meaningful belonging. The degree of one's commitment to a person is related to what such a person has done to deserve loyalty and devotion. A mother who gives up her son for adoption soon after his birth in order to be free to pursue her professional career can hardly expect that the boy later in life will feel filial attachment to her.
The Sabbath reassures the believer that God never gives him up but has given His very life in order to restore to him life and divine fellowship. This redemptive function of the Sabbath will be examined in a following essay to be posted shortly. We shall see how in the OT and NT the physical Sabbath rest points to the greater spiritual rest of salvation to be found in Christ. The believer who on the Sabbath stops his doing to experience his being saved by divine grace renounces human efforts to work out his own salvation and acknowledges his belonging to God, the author and finisher of his salvation.
We asked at the outset, What intrinsic characteristics does the Sabbath possess to enable it to function as a meaningful sign of a divine-human covenant relationship? We have briefly alluded to seven factors. First, as the sign of divine ownership, the Sabbath constantly reminds the believer of his belonging to God. Second, as God's holiness in time, the Sabbath reassures the believer who keeps it of his divine election and mission in this world. Third, as an incorruptible and universal symbol, the Sabbath is always fresh in its meaning and enables every human being to express commit-ment to God. Fourth, as a type of baptism, the Sabbath provides a weekly opportunity to renew the baptismal covenant, by experiencing anew self-renouncement as well as physical, social and spiritual renewal.
Fifth, as a temporal symbol, the Sabbath protects the believer from idolatry, reminding him of the spiritual nature of his covenant relationship with God. Sixth, as a fitting symbol of mutual commitment, the Sabbath reassures humanity of God's availability and invites the believer to express his belonging to God by offering Him a specific measure of time-the seventh day-as a token expression of his total life. Lastly, as a reminder of God's saving activities, the Sabbath enables the believer to experience and celebrate the assur-ance of God's love and the Good News of Belonging to God and His people.
A SUGGESTION: If you have found these reflections on why God has chosen the Sabbath as a covenant sign inspiring and enlightening, you may wish to read my fuller treatment in chapter 4 of DIVINE REST FOR HUMAN RESTLESSNESS. If you do not have a copy of this timely book which has been translated in over 20 languages, feel free to contact me. I would be glad to make a copy available to you.
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
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