Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Sabbath, Revisited

I have been overwhelmed since I woke up this morning and checked my e-mail to discover that my recent post on the Sabbath has all of a sudden garnered quite a response. I was shocked to see that, overnight, I had received scores of comments.

This is surprising because, although I have posted some items that have received quite a bit of feedback, it was nothing of this magnitude. After doing a little digging, I discovered that someone had posted a link to my post on the Seventh-day Adventist Facebook fanpage - and, while I usually get about 20 hits on my blog a day, there has been nearly 1500 hits with over 100 new comments between Facebook and the blog itself.

I say all this because I would like to respond all the good feedback, but I am now overwhelmed! I am just a humble pastor, living in Maine (the northeastern part of the United States, for those who are from overseas). And what started out as a status update in Facebook that I was going to share, but turned into a whole post on my blog that I was reluctant to share, has seemed to scratch where a lot of people are itching.

So with all that said, I want to share a few general thoughts in response to all the feedback, questions, and comments people have left.

1. One thing that I want to reiterate that may or may not have come out enough in the original post is the reality that the Sabbath, in my mind, is first and foremost about a responsive relationship with Christ. A number of people raised this point. And I completely agree. That is the most important element of the Sabbath. All the rules or formulas are empty if it is not about responding to God's initiative and fellowshipping with Him. And, again, if this did not come out in the original post, I am terribly sorry. That is the foundation to the whole issue.

As I have already mentioned in a previous comment, as well - there is a whole chapter in a forthcoming book of mine from Pacific Press that touches upon this beautiful truth of the Sabbath.

Again, keeping the Sabbath is about responding by faith - and, in fact, I would posit that it is the ultimate reflection of whether we are living by faith.

2. I also agree that the Sabbath is a very personal thing between us and God. Our walk with God, and how we relate to Him, is like any other relationship in life. No one can govern or dictate to us how we interact with another person. This is especially true in marriage relationships - which are a poignant reflection of our walk with Christ.

But (and there is always a "but," isn't there?) no matter how personal any relationship is - be it with God or other human beings - there are certain behaviors that are never appropriate. I could argue with you, for example, that you have no business telling me how I should interact with my wife, but such a proposition on my part would not change the fact that it is never appropriate to sleep with another woman, look at pornography, etc. There are certain universal principles that reach across all cultures, times, people, etc.

So too, I would propose with the Sabbath. While it is definitely a very personal encounter for all of us with God, God has set forth some very basic parameters in the Bible that serve as universal principles from His heart to ours. These are the expectations that He has - not because He is exacting or interested in setting arbitrary rules, but because He cares too much about our health and wellbeing and understands that these parameters can save us from a lot of grief, stress, and heartache. As I will also mention below, God is a lot smarter than us and while we may think there are certain behaviors we can get away with on the Sabbath that won't stress us out (ie., paying for something on Sabbath), He, as the builders of our bodies, knows what truly protects us from these unfortunate results.

This is not to say, as I have already stated, that there aren't a lot of personal decisions that we each need to individually make that are not spelled out plainly in the Bible, but I do see the five basic principles in the Bible that are not simply chalked up to personal decisions, but are universal in their scope. Again, those are 1. Keeping it holy 2. Refraining from work 3. No buying or selling 4. Leaving our selfish pleasures behind 5. Doing good.

So long as we can, in good conscience, determine that any specific activity falls within these parameters, we are in a good place.

3. I know that many are still uncomfortable with the idea that we would ever want to talk about what we "should" or "shouldn't do" on the Sabbath, or asking ourselves whether it is "okay" to do this particular thing or that particular thing. As a general rule, I, too, try to steer clear of the "should" or "shouldn't" mindset. Instead, I usually like to talk about what we would naturally "want" to do or naturally not want to do. When we are responding to the relational pursuit of God, we will, ideally, find ourselves wanting to do certain things and not wanting to do certain other things.

However, I also think there is a place for black-and-white principles because, as I have stated in another comment, God wants to protect us from placing us in a situation where we can deceive ourselves. As sinful human beings we are very capable of - and, in fact, accomplished at - tricking ourselves into thinking we are doing something for one reason, while we are really doing it for another reason.

Thus, God wants to rescue us from simply living completely in a subjective experience (ie., basing our behavior on what "feels" right or what we perceive to be good). This is why He gives us the law in general, and the Sabbath principles specifically. He gives these to us as objective criteria by which we can judge our behavior against to see if we are in the right place.

All of us are at a different place, of course, but what God really wants is to bring us into a deeper and richer experience - and that can only happen when He is able to reveal our hearts to us. And our hearts can only be revealed to us when we are able to judge our behavior against an objective standard. Hence, the reason for "should" or "shouldn'ts" when it comes to the Sabbath, or any other issue.

Simply put, we do not know our own hearts (nor does any other human being) so we need God to reveal them to us. But He cannot do this simply by giving us a feeling or subjective experience. He can only do this by pointing us to His objective law.

4. I recognize that, for many people, we have been bombarded with a legalistic approach to the Sabbath. For many, it's been all about "dos" and "don'ts" (though, as many have pointed out, it is usually just the "don'ts"). This is truly unfortunate.

But we need to be mature enough to recognize something: when it comes to legalism, the rules are not necessarily the problem, per se. It's the motivation and reason that is given for those rules that is the problem. Thus, just because something may have been presented in a legalistic way in the past does not mean that the problem is with the rule itself. So, for example, if our parents didn't let us swim on Sabbath when we were kids, and the only reason they gave us was because "we aren't supposed to," the problem is not necessarily the rule about swimming but the wrong motivation or reason behind the rule.

This is important as we mature in our experience with Christ in general and our Sabbath behavior in particular. The devil likes to do nothing more than to take a good principle/guideline/rule/law, wrap it in the wrong motivation, and then convince us that it is actually the rule/law/principle/guideline that is wrong. This happens over and over again with many things - both in relation to the Sabbath and in relation to God.

Thus, what we really need to be able to do is examine the principles, asking God to show us the truth of the principle itself apart from any emotional reaction we might have to it.

5. As challenged as some people might be by the this, the fact of the matter is, one of the main problems for Israel of old was their Sabbath keeping. Their lack of reverence for the Sabbath was a main cause for their exile. I would invite anyone to read Ezekiel 20 - as just one place - to encounter this reality firsthand. (For further study on this issue in Ezekiel 20, I would suggest you read this article I wrote in Ministry magazine a few years ago.)

So, as much as we want the Sabbath to be a purely subjective and personal matter, God doesn't necessarily view it that way. How we keep the Sabbath does affect other people and God. (Their desecration of the Sabbath was often linked to the exploitation of others - see Isaiah 58)

The mistake God's people made, of course, was not in recognizing that their captivity was directly linked to their desecration of the Sabbath, but was their solution to that desecration. They decided to make strict rules to govern every situation they might face on the Sabbath and, furthermore, they insisted that every Jewish person strictly adhere to them. They took the five universal principles of Sabbath observance in the Old Testament, and tried to add to them.

So the bottom line is: we need to ask ourselves whether we, too, are in danger of desecrating the Sabbath as the Jews did (as I think we might be in danger of) but also ask ourselves how we can avoid the pitfalls that they did and recognize that God is really pleading for our hearts (where He will write true Sabbath keeping).

5. I have had many people asking if I could provide a "model" of what "appropriate" or "positive" Sabbath keeping looks like. And in the midst of a lot of "don'ts" that are often listed (including by me) I think it would be a good exercise to provide some positive suggestions about what a positive Sabbath experience would look like. This is not exhaustive, it is not universal, it is not prescriptive. It is only some personal reflections that seem to fit in my mind as I reflect upon the five biblical principles of Sabbath keeping.

So here are some suggestions (beyond attending church, of course):
  • Go for a hike, enjoying God's beautiful nature
  • Sing at a nursing home
  • Have a group Bible study
  • Spend time in personal Bible reading
  • Visit shut-ins
These suggestions may not be necessarily "children" friendly (something I am going to have to explore as my children get older), but I might also suggest reading the chapter "Sabbath - The Day of Delight" (chapter 79) in Child Guidance, by Ellen White. Someone else also suggested the chapter called "Sabbath - A Day for Families" in Donna Habenicht's book How to Help Your Child to Really Love Jesus. I have not read this book personally, but as a father of growing kids, I certainly hope to read it! Apparently, the chapter on the Sabbath in that book has six pages of suggestions for Sabbath activities for families.

6. I realize that some - if not all - of the above suggestions will probably seem "boring" for many people. Truthfully, some of them were boring to me when I was a kid growing up (and still can be). And, though this will be a whole other post in the future, I hope, I have also come to the realization that some of the above suggestions may seem boring, not because of how we keep the Sabbath, but because of how we "keep" the rest of the week.

After all, if I fill up the rest of free time during the week - or the rest of my young kids' free time - with TV watching, movies, sports, and entertaining myself to death, why would nature hikes, nursing home visits, etc., not be boring? And if I hardly ever respond to Christ during the rest of my week by spending time in communion with Him through His Word, why would I want to spend my Sabbath with Him?

Again, all this is to say that the Sabbath is the ultimate revealer of where my heart's affections really lie.

7. Lastly, I was wondering if anyone would pick up on a subtle - yet important - point I made toward the end of the post. In my original post I shared that God doesn't give us the Sabbath law - or any law - to get us to keep it, but to show that we can't keep it.

This is one of the most important truths of scripture: God doesn't give the law to sinners so that we would be convicted of it and then try to obey it. This, we simply cannot do. He gives the law to sinners to point out our need for our Savior, and send us clinging to Him so that He can save us, and then He write His law on our hearts - producing the obedience for us. This could be demonstrated from a number of places in the Bible, but I think this quote in Steps to Christ sums it up most succinctly:
It was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God's law. But he failed to do this, and because of his sin our natures are fallen and we cannot make ourselves righteous. Since we are sinful, unholy, we cannot perfectly obey the holy law. We have no righteousness of our own with which to meet the claims of the law of God. But Christ has made a way of escape for us. He lived on earth amid trials and temptations such as we have to meet. He lived a sinless life. He died for us, and now He offers to take our sins and give us His righteousness. If you give yourself to Him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ's character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.
More than this, Christ changes the heart. He abides in your heart by faith. You are to maintain this connection with Christ by faith and the continual surrender of your will to Him; and so long as you do this, He will work in you to will and to do according to His good pleasure (pp. 62-63).
This lays it out beautifully! You might also be interested in listening to a recent sermon I preached on this topic, based on Galatians 3:19-25. You can find the mp3 of that sermon here.

I hope I have addressed the basic questions that most people had. I am sure I left a number of unanswered unintentionally. But that's where I am going to leave it for now. And I am pressing "publish" without proof-reading this, so please excuse the typos!

May we all respond to Christ with our whole hearts and be willing to receive the counsel of the "Faithful and True Witness" (Rev 3:14), as we come face to face with our true condition.


Tony Tauro said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Shawn. I believe, based on my studies, that the Sabbath will be a (the) final "test of faith" for all purported Christians. The more sacred, the more special we, as SDA's. make it now in our lives, the easier we will be able to address the the difficulties related thereto when such tests come. Conversely, if keeping the Sabbath depends merely on convenience, the future severe tests and pressures that we all must face may become overbearing, ultimately resulting in eternal tragedy. Now is the time we must be building this special relationship with Jesus.

DanaKendall said...

4 We are confident of all this because of our great trust in God through Christ. 5 It is not that we think we are qualified to do anything on our own. Our qualification comes from God. 6 He has enabled us to be ministers of his new covenant. This is a covenant not of written laws, but of the Spirit. The old written covenant ends in death; but under the new covenant, the Spirit gives life.

The Glory of the New Covenant

7 The old way, with laws etched in stone, led to death, though it began with such glory that the people of Israel could not bear to look at Moses’ face. For his face shone with the glory of God, even though the brightness was already fading away. 8 Shouldn’t we expect far greater glory under the new way, now that the Holy Spirit is giving life? 9 If the old way, which brings condemnation, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new way, which makes us right with God! 10 In fact, that first glory was not glorious at all compared with the overwhelming glory of the new way. 11 So if the old way, which has been replaced, was glorious, how much more glorious is the new, which remains forever!

12 Since this new way gives us such confidence, we can be very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so the people of Israel would not see the glory, even though it was destined to fade away. 14 But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. 15 Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand.

16 But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. (2 Cor. 4:16)

Andrew said...

I would hate to think the Sabbath is just a "test of faith". If so, many people will keep it without really keeping it at all.
After all, some people might conclude that all you have to do is grit your teeth and be serious enough to bear the pain and you'll make it through the time of trouble without abandoning Sabbath.
This reduces Sabbath-keeping to some sort of holding-pattern; marking time until the "test".

It has to have a deeper meaning if people are going to cling to it in spite of external threats.

We cannot, again, muster this up by saying ever more earnest things about the Sabbath.
We can say that Sabbath is about Christ--but what does that mean?
We can say that Sabbath is about "what God has done for us", but what does that mean?

I may agree, but is that enough for me to want to cling to the Sabbath in the face of persecution?

The Sabbath will be a test by proxy--but only the people who really have some framework other than "I need to pass this test" or "it's a requirement" might be able to hold it dear.

Travels of the funny farm said...

I for one enjoyed your post. Infact, I have put your blog address on my favorites list. I want to thank you for being so candid and you answered many questions I have had about how to keep the Sabbath. I like the thought that keeping the Sabbath is about our relationship with God. I will be reading your posts often now. You are in my prayers, as I feel young/old or whatever pastors need our prayers.