Grace and Sabbath

Don: Today we will consider the Sabbath as evidence of God’s grace. I introduce the topic with some trepidation, because the meaning of the Sabbath is different among people in this group. Those indoctrinated in the concept of Sabbath might see it as the correct day for worship, a distinguishing sign for God’s people, and essential for salvation. That is not an official Adventist doctrine, but Sabbath-keeping has long been considered a mark of piety by Adventists in general.

Every religion and religious follower clings to a practice or belief they think is unique and special in God’s eyes and distinguishes them from other religions and their followers. No religion teaches that another religion possesses a greater truth or is more right thinking or practices more effective rituals than itself. To its followers, the truth and right and effectiveness of every religion is proven in its Scripture.

But as I grew older, the dividing line between those who observed the keeping of the Sabbath and those who did not grew more blurred. The idea that my religion might not be the only way to heaven—that there are many sheep in the pen who are not of this fold—made the importance of Sabbath-keeping seem somewhat less compelling. I believe that God is the God of all humankind, that all people—all sheep—everywhere are His flock, that He can be worshiped in a variety of ways and should be worshiped daily, continuously, ceaselessly.

Nevertheless, from beginning to end, the Bible maintains a concept, a metaphor, an illustration for grace that is wrapped up in the understanding of the Sabbath. In this idea we might find a new appreciation, a new way of understanding it, and more importantly, a new way to share it—like grace itself. Here is the first mention of it:

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made. (Genesis 2:1-3)

Why does God need to rest? Clearly, He is not subject to exhaustion. What does it mean that the day became sanctified? For whose benefit was it sanctified? For God’s? The clue is in what took place the day before:

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:27-31)

Thus, God established the order of life and the Oneness of it in the garden of Eden. Humankind—Man and Woman—were to be one with each other, one with the earth and its creatures, and—in the Sabbath rest—one with God, resting with God when God rests. This Oneness was shattered by the Fall. Man and woman became ashamed at their nakedness and sought to cover themselves from one another and from God. Adam blamed Eve. The oneness between themselves and with the rest of Creation was broken, and their work and toil was multiplied immensely:

To the woman He said,
“I will greatly multiply 
Your pain in childbirth, 
In pain you will bring forth children;
 Yet your desire will be for your husband,
 And he will rule over you.”

Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;

Cursed is the ground because of you;
 In toil you will eat of it
 All the days of your life.
 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
 And you will eat the plants of the field;
 By the sweat of your face
 You will eat bread,
 Till you return to the ground, 
Because from it you were taken;
 For you are dust,
 And to dust you shall return.”

… therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:16-24)

Fortunately for Humankind, God had anticipated our Fall and had provided the Sabbath as a way to restore the shattered Oneness. The Sabbath is a metaphor for grace. The restfulness of the Sabbath contrasts with the toil of the other six days. It is the epitome of grace. It is a reminder of the Creation, of the time when there was Oneness in the garden:

For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:11)

Similarly, the Sabbath serves as a perpetual, eternal sign of our true relationship with God:

“But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.’ It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.”(Exodus 31:13-17)

The death penalty declared in that passage emphasizes the fatal nature of any religion based on works without grace.

In the wilderness, during the exodus, God provided manna—another metaphor for grace—to the Israelites. He gave them as much as they needed, and they were to take no more than that (if they did, the extra would turn rancid). However…:

… on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, then he said to them, “This is what the Lord meant: Tomorrow is a sabbath observance, a holy sabbath to the Lord. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul nor was there any worm in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.”

It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.
The house of Israel named it manna, and it was like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey. Then Moses said, “This is what the Lord has commanded, ‘Let an omerful of it be kept throughout your generations, that they may see the bread that I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you out of the land of Egypt.’” Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar and put an omerful of manna in it, and place it before the Lord to be kept throughout your generations.” As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron placed it before the Testimony, to be kept. The sons of Israel ate the manna forty years, until they came to an inhabited land; they ate the manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. (Exodus 16:22-35)

In the Gospels, Jesus taught the real meaning of the Sabbath. For His contemporary Jews, the Sabbath was a great burden. He sought constantly to teach them its importance. Yet, in the end, He was crucified in large part because the Jews considered Him to be a Sabbath breaker:

For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God. (John 5:18)

But in his teaching, Jesus established three principles of Sabbath-keeping:

  1. It is a day for Worship—for re-establishing oneness with God.
  2. It is a day for doing good works—for re-establishing oneness with others.
  3. It is a day to set aside business—for introspection to re-establish oneness with one’s self.

It is notable that Jesus did many of His good works—His healings—on the Sabbath. Here, He explains why:

And it happened that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and he and his companions became hungry; how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he also gave it to those who were with him?” Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28)

The link between the Sabbath and grace was captured by Paul in his letter to the Hebrews:

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. [This suggests that there is both a physical Sabbath, a mental/psychological Sabbath, and a spiritual Sabbath.] And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:9-16)

Donald: Seventh-Day Adventists have a unique perspective on the Sabbath. It is the distinguishing feature of the faith. It’s difficult for us to have this conversation without worrying about how we “practice” the Sabbath.

Don: If the Sabbath is not related to salvation, then given the amount of Scripture (from Genesis all the way through Revelation) and the fact that Jesus devoted much of His ministry to it, the Sabbath must have some other meaning, beyond being merely a convention.

Becky: I’ve read that the Sabbath answers life’s three great questions: “Where have I come from?”, “Where am I going?”, and “Why am I here?” It’s a commemoration of Creation, it foreshadows the eternal rest we are to receive in heaven following salvation, and it reminds us that we are here to live in right relationship with God and to share that relationship with others. As someone born into Adventism, the Sabbath has been generally a delight to me, though sometimes we treat it legalistically. I’m puzzled that other Christian denominations don’t seem to take seriously its place in the Ten Commandments. To me, it seems to be the ultimate gift—the gift that brings meaning to my life.

Robin: That the Sabbath is a gift would seem to be confirmed by Jesus when He said:

“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)

It was a gift given at the Creation. It was not something we had to earn or work for. It was intended as a joyful day of reflection. Legalism crept in along with various prohibitions on behavior on the Sabbath. For instance, there was a time when children were not allowed to ride bicycles on the Sabbath. How poorly they must have viewed a gift which spoiled their joy.

Dr. Singh: The Sabbath is important in everyone’s life. It is the sign of Creation. If there were no Sabbath, there would be no God, no need for repentance, no need to accept Jesus Christ. The seventh day is holy to Hindus, whose priests go door-to-door on Saturdays asking for donations.

KB: So how do we translate that gift from “Sabbath” to “grace”?

Anonymous: It seems to me very clear that there is a relationship between grace and the Sabbath. As I grow older, the relationship seems to grow stronger. When I was young, the Sabbath seemed like an onerous duty to be suffered. As the years went by, it turned into just a routine. Then I began consciously to try to take it more seriously, to obey the spirit of the Commandment. I did not always succeed, but eventually I began to fathom its depths. I began to see its relationship with grace.

The Israelites in the wilderness received manna as a gift on the Sabbath—they did not have to go out and collect it. God was telling them that He would provide for them without their having to earn it. Thus, the Sabbath itself was as significant a gift as grace itself. It removed the stress of having to work, do the daily household chores, and so on. I could forget all my troubles and simply enjoy the day. The older I got, the more I valued rest.

I’ve now come to view it in an expanded light, as giving me rest not only from my labors but also from my sins. I don’t have to do anything except believe in God. God will take care of everything—food, rest, sins, salvation—for me. What more could one need? Why run around working overtime on the Sabbath to provide for things God provides for free? “Rest in me,” says God. “It’s all you need.” I have found that to be true, from personal experience.

Robin: It gives us a foretaste of heaven.

Dr. Singh: All we have to do is recognize that God is the Creator.

Jay: The Sabbath is a foundational element in the foundation of everything—of Creation itself. It is as foundational as light, air, water, and the other life-sustaining elements of Creation. But if the Sabbath was created for our salvation or repentance (etc.), it puzzles me that it was created before there was a need for it; and I wonder what this implies for grace. Was it too not as tied to salvation as we think? Or was God just anticipating our Fall and preempting its worst effects? Was grace foundational to the Creation in the sense that God had to have it ready for the time when (He knew) we would screw things up?

David: It is somewhat confusing to me. I accept that as a tool for achieving oneness with God and others, the Sabbath is a wonderful thing. Anything that can nudge us toward that oneness—which is the real goal—is beneficent. But consider the perspective of other sects and religions that don’t observe a Sabbath but which must share the goal of oneness.

We’ve entertained in class before the notion that a divine hand could be behind the world’s multiplicity of religions, therefore a divine hand may be responsible for the myriad ways in which we seek oneness. The SDA has chosen the Sabbath as its way, and as Anonymous described it, it has clearly been a good choice for Adventists and deserves commendation rather than criticism. But the tools adopted by others to achieve oneness are equally commendable, at least in terms of the end goal if not of the means to that end.

Mikiko: I respect the SDA and its faithfulness to God. I researched and found that the word “sabbath” comes from the Hebrew word for “to rest” and “to cease.” It appears in the Bible in God’s command to ancient Israel, as in the passage from Exodus 16 quoted earlier. Our position is that:

The Sabbath law applied only to the people subject to the rest of the Law given through Moses. (Deuteronomy 5:2, 3; Ezekiel 20:10-12) God never required other people to observe a sabbath rest. In addition, even the Jews were “released from the Law” of Moses, including the Ten Commandments, by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. (Romans 7:6, 7; 10:4; Galatians 3:24, 25; Ephesians 2:15) Rather than adhere to the Law of Moses, Christians follow the superior law of love.—Romans 13:9, 10; Hebrews 8:13. (Source: https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/christian-sabbath/)

Don: That is an important point. It highlights the core of our discussion. On the one hand the Sabbath is viewed as an obligation, an imperative to be observed on a specific day; on the other, it is viewed as an obligation imposed only on the Jews. But if we think of the Sabbath as a gift, as an example of God’s grace, then (it seems to me) everyone can receive it. It renders moot the arguments between those who keep the Sabbath and those who don’t.

Chris: I share the experience of Anonymous. When I was a child, the Sabbath was the day the fun stopped. It was a day of prohibitions—no bike riding, no basketball, no fun at all. As an adult, I grew wise enough to find value in the Sabbath and to accept it as a gracious gift, and that transformed me. Before that, I could not understand my need for it. I even wanted to work to deserve it (which made the Sabbath a chore), not realizing it was a gift. It is the same with grace. It becomes transformative when you accept that it is there not to make you do something, but rather to do something for you. It leads to a longing for the Sabbath and for God’s grace.

Donald: We have to accept both grace and the Sabbath without necessarily understanding either. Some level of faith is required. Both are complex and parallel concepts. Perhaps we appreciate the Sabbath more as we age simply because we grow more tired, more in need of rest.

David: We appreciate grace because it arrives when we really need it. Perhaps the same is true for the Sabbath—it delivers its benefits when we really need them.

Don: We’ll pursue our search for a fresh perspective on the Sabbath.


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