Monday, March 13, 2023

Anonymous Asks (240)

“What does it mean that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath?”

The Sabbath was a weekly day of rest for the people of Israel instituted by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. Keeping it is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. Its basis is the creation week of Genesis 1-2: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and 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.”

One obvious conclusion we can draw from this is that Christians cannot intelligently make the theory of evolution coexist with scripture. A myth cannot possibly provide the authoritative basis for one of God’s rules; therefore I would judge that creation occurred just as Genesis says it did. But let’s not get off track here.

The Sabbath, Positive and Negative

On the Sabbath day, Israel was to avoid all work, including labor in the kitchen and labor in the field. No new fire could be lit. The Sabbath rest applied to every member of every Israelite family, every foreign servant and every visitor to Israel. Working on the Sabbath was a capital offense in Israel. The Sabbath principle also applied to every seventh year, when the land was to rest, and every fiftieth year, the provisions of which included a release of debt, a return of property, and a rest for the land.

These latter uses of “Sabbath” remind us that Exodus frames its rules positively as well as negatively: it is not just “don’t work”, but that the “seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God”. The Sabbath was God’s day, and was to be reserved for the things of God. The only exception to the Sabbath “work” rule was for the priesthood, which continued to operate on the seventh day. Thus the temple, and later the synagogue, became the focus of Sabbath worship for Israel.

Reasons for the Sabbath

Both Jews and Christians offer logical reasons for the institution of God’s Sabbath rest in Israel. One conclusion they draw is that people need a break from work, and an enforced Sabbath rest made sure they got it. One day off every week, it is said, would keep people from becoming workaholics or financial idolaters. Others say, “If God took a rest, so should you.” Still others point out that observing the Sabbath required trusting in God to provide enough for your needs on the other six days of the week, as Israel did in the wilderness when the manna failed to fall on the Sabbath.

All these are potentially good reasons and each has some validity, but I should point out that the first mention of a day of rest for human beings occurs over 2.5 thousand years after creation. Many people in earth’s history never took a day off or were asked to do so, including Christians. The Sabbath is specifically an Israelite ordinance. As far as the reasons for it are concerned, it is adequate to say, “God commanded it.” That is reason enough to do anything.

Jesus and the Sabbath

By the first century, Jewish religious authorities had made the Sabbath into a nightmare. What God had intended for the good of his people had become cluttered with extra-biblical rules and regulations. They interpreted the Law of Moses ruthlessly, insisting that carrying bedding was “work”, healing the sick on the Sabbath was “work”, and that it was preferable to remain hungry than even to pluck the head of a piece of grain as you walked through a field.

When the Lord Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, it was in this cultural and religious context. He was reacting to mindless, petty, legalistic interpretations of the Sabbath ordinance imposed against the best interests of God’s people. What he meant was that the Sabbath rule was given by God for Israel’s blessing, not to keep sick or demon-possessed people from enjoying health and spiritual freedom because of a technicality. He asked the religious leaders, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” The question was rhetorical, the answer obvious: they all would. Then Jesus added, “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

According to the Jewish leadership, Jesus “broke” the Sabbath regularly. But the problem was not with the Lord’s conduct; rather, it was with the burdensome legalism of the religious leadership imposed on people for whom the Sabbath rest was intended as a relief and a release.

The Larger Sense

In a larger sense, the Lord’s statement is a reminder that God gave his laws not to limit our freedom but to keep us from self-injury. The original “limitation” was of this sort. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was ultimately poisonous to mankind. Forbidding it was a kindness, not a gratuitous restriction. All the Ten Commandments may be read this way. The rules forbidding murder, theft, false witness and adultery were designed to protect the rights of others, not as unreasonable limitations on the needs and desires of men with the power to take the things they want. God gave these commands for man’s good, not to impose burdens on him.

Today, many young believers find the “unequal yoke” teaching of 2 Corinthians 6 as burdensome as the Pharisees of the first century had made the Sabbath for the citizens of Judea. After all, that principle effectively places 9/10 or more of the opposite sex off limits for Christian marriage. Many reject it, thinking they know better than the apostle Paul. However, like the Sabbath, God intended the rules of the New Testament to make Christians happy, not as an imposition. We are better to view such limitations as guidelines intended to produce the greatest possible happiness for those who take them seriously. After the haze of infatuation wears off, Christians who opt to ignore such teachings find themselves miserable in marriages with partners with whom they have nothing in common.

Somewhere between rigid legalism and antinomian chaos lies a sweet spot where believers recognize God’s ordinances are for our good, and observe them with pleasure rather than fear. We will also be careful about imposing rules on others in situations where God never intended those rules to be applied. I believe that was the sort of thing Jesus had in mind when he said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

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