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Book Review “Living the Sabbath” by Norman Wirzba

Wirzba_Living the Sabbath Cover

Book Review of Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba

Wirzba’s “Living the Sabbath” is a book with unexpected interpretations and analyses. From the outset, he explains that “[t]his book lays out the case for Sabbath observance that does not depend on the cultural sanction of complete rest for one day of the week” (p 14). He continues by asserting that though a weekly rest is desirable, sometimes we need alternative rituals to practice during the week to help us realize the ultimate goal of Sabbath keeping. His “expanded” Sabbath seems to touch upon every area of life, from recycling and lobster harvesting to daily worship and delight. So this book is not really about the weekly Sabbath, but about Wirzba’s “greening” and hyper-spiritualizing of some quotidian Sabbath-creation ideal.

Not that this is totally off kilter, because the Sabbath institution invited the Israelites to look to the prelapsarian world for the context for keeping it. Therefore, there is a link between the symbolism of Sabbath-keeping and the pristine world with Adam and Eve living in harmony with creation and their God. But that link must be understood in the context of redemption and have as its focus the person of Jesus Christ. To be specific, the Jews were commanded to refrain from work on the seventh day of the week in view of the fact that God refrained from work Himself during the first week of history. This new holy day called the Sabbath was an iteration of the Lord’s rest that took place thousands of years before: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day” (Ex 20:11). The Jews were not told to remember the works of God in creation, but they were commanded to bring everything to a stop and reflect on the fact that sin interrupted the harmonic and peaceful state that Adam and Eve enjoyed but for a moment. That thought alone would cause any sincere Sabbath-keeper to look forward to the day when the Lord would again perform the mighty work of redemption to bring about that wonderful state of rest again. Yes, God deserves praise for His glorious might and power as displayed in the beauty and expanse of creation; however, that praise must come from a redeemed people.

But there is a significant difference between the Lord’s solitary week of creation that ended with triumphant rest and the Jew’s recurring week of sin ending with the Sabbath and the sacrifice of two additional lambs. In fact, the differences are so striking, that it should make us wonder why the Lord would design this connection. In my opinion, the connection is that both the creation week and the sabbatic week are both symbolic of redemption. This is why the Lord plans to make a new heavens and a new earth, because the first creation was made with the sovereign knowledge that sin should enter the world. The first world is made obsolete so He may establish the second. This is the law of redemption.

But Wirzba does not explore this aspect of the relationship between creation and the Sabbath. For him, the Sabbath references creation, therefore, the Sabbath is all about nurturing creation, and creation is all about everything, so the Sabbath is all about everything. Wirzba seems to imagine a world in which man is in harmony with nature and God, and then he puts all of his applications under the rubric of “Sabbath-keeping.” The book is better entitled: “A Christian Philosophy of Earthly Stewardship,” or “Recapturing Eden,” even “Spiritual Reflections on a World at Rest.”

The cover of the book pictures an empty hammock tethered to a mighty trunk by a chain, perhaps inviting the reader to partake in a menuha (“rest”) free of the concerns for the world. However, he states that “[t]he Sabbath is not simply about taking a break from our busy routines” (p 15). The Subtitle “Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight” seems to imply recurring periodic applications of Sabbath-keeping, but again, his idea of Sabbath-keeping is a daily occurrence. Perhaps “rhythm” means lifestyle. While other reviewers are more forgiving of these non sequiturs, this reviewer finds it difficult to accept a position that redefines the Sabbath in order to provide a platform for a pet ideology.

The Sabbath is defined by Scripture (i.e., by God) with specific properties, qualities, and designs.

  • It was established for the nation Israel while in the wilderness
  • It is related to God’s rest on the seventh day
  • It is related to Israel’s experience of redemption from Egypt
  • It takes place on the seventh day of the week perpetually, presumably for 24 hours
  • It begins in the evening of the 6th day
  • It is observed by rest, i.e., the discontinuation of work
  • The work prohibition extends to household members, working animals, and servants
  • It specifically prohibited igniting a fire
  • It restricted both commerce and travel
  • Failure to observe the Sabbath was punishable by death
  • Priestly duties on the Sabbath included the sacrifice of two additional lambs and the baking of showbread according to a strict formula

For four hundred years, theologians who believed in the morality of the Sabbath wrote exhaustively about the application of Sabbath law to contemporary culture, but Wirzba believes he is uncovering something that has eluded the best of minds. “The central significance of the Sabbath. . . has mostly been lost to us” (p 14).

Wirzba speaks hyperbolically of the errors and sins of humans in relationship to nature, institutions, and each other as if these are all violations of Sabbath law. But they are really violations of love and of conscience, and sometimes they are sins of ignorance. I read Population Bomb as a teenager and likely hold many of the same ecological values as Wirzba. I am overly concerned for the environment, I don’t like being in debt, I think it is healthy to have a garden to care for, and I am a rabid recycler. But I did not come to these conclusions because of the Sabbath; instead, they are informed by a growing knowledge of God’s plenary word and an understanding of environmental science. It is thoughtless and lazy to litter, it is greedy and wasteful to catch more fish than you can consume, and it is unloving and unjust to pollute someone else’s water or to underpay your employees. These are not violations of Sabbath law, but of the law of love. It is wise to prune a vine to encourage more growth, it is common sense to refill your own container with water rather than purchasing crates of bottled water, and it just makes sense to buy local in order to keep the tax dollars in your own community. These also are not violations of Sabbath law, but of common sense and scientific knowledge.

Interestingly, the few readers who read his book and provided online reviews seemed pleased with his approach. What he manages to accomplish is to convince like-minded environmentalists that they have a biblical rationale for every idea or goal to help the planet and its people through a loose interpretation of the Sabbath. If I refrain from purchasing water bottles, then I am a Sabbath person. If I plant a garden, then I am following the Sabbath way. If I not only read the label on products I am purchasing, but know the manufacturing and delivery process, then I reflect a Sabbath sensibility. If I use technology less and relate to family members more, then I have a Sabbath home. If I sing a hymn while washing the dishes in the company of another, then I have the Sabbath spirit. He tells us there’s a Sabbath sense, a Sabbath education, a Sabbath environmentalism, Sabbath practices, a Sabbath code, Sabbath responsibilities, a Sabbath economy, a Sabbath direction, Sabbath teaching, a Sabbath point of view, a Sabbath life, and a Sabbath potential. Because he makes the Sabbath mean everything, in the end it means nothing. The Sabbath shouldn’t be invoked when he can very well make his case with common sense stewardship of our homes, education, environment, and the economy, or for applying the Lordship of Jesus Christ over every area of our life.

Wirzba provides his exegesis of the biblical texts dealing with the Sabbath in Chapter 2 entitled “The Meaning of the Sabbath” and in Chapter 7, “Work and the Sabbath.” He discusses the Lord’s Day in Chapter 3 entitled “From Sabbath to Sunday.” Let us first search for an anchor in his viewpoint about Christian community worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, and then we will look at Chapter 2.

“Sunday is the Lord’s Day, which means that on this day we set aside time to make sure that Christ is indeed the Lord of our living and not we ourselves. We gather together so that we can better learn what Christ’s lordship means for us in the midst of our everyday living… Sunday is the day when Christ’s followers most visibly gather to pledge their allegiance to the ways of Jesus. ” (p 49)

Given the centrality of Christ and His resurrection on the first day of the week and the implications of the advent of a new creation vis-à-vis the old creation, what relationship does Wirzba see between the Sabbath and Lord’s Day?

“[H]istorical evidence shows that the development of the Christian Sunday was not simply a gospel way of observing the Fourth Commandment…[W]e should insist on continuity between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian ‘feast day’…Sunday is an intensification of the Sabbath.” (p 42, 49)

In one sentence he asserts that the Lord’s Day was not tied to the Sabbath, but then states that the Sabbath informs the Lord’s Day. He quotes Moltmann who deemed that Sunday does not abolish the Sabbath and then quotes Gregory the Great who believed that Jesus abolished the Sabbath by being its fulfillment, “For us, the true Sabbath is the person of our Redeemer.”

I read this chapter at least five times and still cannot make sense of it. It is full of religious sounding assertions that are not necessarily related. His summary paragraph begins, “Sunday, far from being the obliteration of Sabbath teaching, represents a profound rearticulation of God’s overarching purpose and plan for creation.” His point seems to say that the Sabbath represented an articulation of God’s purpose and plan for creation and that Sunday rearticulates the same thing. Now it is a puzzle to me, that if the Sabbath did such a good job articulating God’s overarching purpose and plan for creation, why should that job be given to Sunday? He continues, “Sunday is our day of joy, for here we remember our memberships one with another and commit ourselves to the health and wholeness—the salvation—of physical and social bodies, of communities and creation, made possible by Christ’s resurrection power and redeeming love.” But if Sunday represents a better articulation of God’s overarching purpose and plan for creation because we now have the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection (which the Sabbath merely shadowed), then why is the book not called “Living the Lord’s Day”? It is just unclear why the Sabbath should have so much to expound about everything when we are living in the power of the resurrection and have the fullness of God’s word and the indwelling of His Spirit.

Surely, Christ’s death and resurrection ushers in the new creation. We experience it in part (1 Cor 2:10), but have little comprehension just how magnificent it will be at the consummation (1 Cor 2:9). Just because a new cosmos is coming, we do not have the right to squander resources, mistreat ecosystems, or put our needs first. But again, the Sabbath has no voice in these matters.

So what does the Sabbath mean to Wirzba? His section headings to Chapter 2 identify four areas that would help frame our understanding: 1) creation, 2) freedom, 3) rest and peace, and 4) justice. Like other Sabbatarians, Wirzba promptly draws attention to the death penalty to highlight the gravity of ignoring the Sabbath. And like other Sabbatarians, he views the death penalty as merely a “what goes around comes around” sort of thing, rather than an act of justice for disobeying the commandment of God. Given his notion that Sabbath-keeping applies to everything, if he were to apply capital law to the same degree he does other Sabbath laws, we would certainly have a better world with real Sabbath-keepers. Unfortunately, he does not explain why the death penalty should not be taken literally when the Sabbath for the land should be taken literally.

Wirzba adopts Heschel’s postulate that the Lord created menuha, or “rest”, on the seventh day. This interpretation comes from Genesis 2:2 that says, “On the seventh day God finished His work,” which ancient Jewish interpreters believed implied that some other work took place on the seventh day. But of course, the whole idea of resting on the seventh day is that all the creative work was accomplished by the end of the sixth day. The midrashic theory is that God worked to create rest, an idea that should be recognized as oxymoronic. Heschel also stated that “The Sabbath preceded creation and the Sabbath completed creation,” a view that is biblically indefensible, but sure sounds spiritual. The point is, Wirzba adopts the oxymoronic, pious-sounding theories of spiritually discerned ancient rabbis instead of giving deeper thought to the Sabbath-creation relationship and the seventh-day non-creative work.

Next, Wirzba properly identifies the Sabbath-redemption link promulgated in Deut 8:2-3 and the Sabbath-manna link. The Lord said to Moses, the reason He gave them Manna is “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that come from the mouth of the Lord.” Wirzba then begins to discuss food and digestion, clean air and anti-profiteering. He missed the opportunity to proclaim redemption in the name of Christ and the surety of it by the power of His word.

The third aspect of the Sabbath is rest and peace. I truly appreciated the first-hand observation how Sabbath-keeping could jeopardize the livelihood of agriculturalists. This was especially true for the Israelites who had even less control over their crops than we do today. Thus, as Wirzba correctly points out, to obey the Sabbath is an expression of trust. The problem is, the Lord is not commanding us to stop all work on the Sabbath or any other day of the week. Wirzba says, “We must learn to live by the generosity of manna falling all around us.” But there is no manna. The double-portion of manna on the sixth day is no longer falling from heaven. However, Wirzba spiritualizes the manna to mean any blessing we receive any day of the week. So why shouldn’t “resting from work” be spiritualized to mean daily resting in the salvation that Christ provided us through His work on the cross (the same meaning that the author of Hebrews attached to the themes of rest)?

Lastly, Wirzba associates the Sabbath with “justice,” in that “everyone should rest together.” He surmises that “the rest of one person should not be at the expense of another’s exhaustion or toil.” It is unclear what he means by “rest,” because the remainder of the chapter he denounces the accumulation of wealth, which he believes frequently comes from the exploitation of human and natural resources. If rest means any benefit or blessing that we receive, then it is hard not to receive a benefit that isn’t the result of someone’s work or sacrifice, i.e., a massage, a medical procedure, or a meal. Most people’s wealth is accumulated over the years as a result of their own manual and/or intellectual labor. If rest-wealth is restricted to rich CEOs, who Wirzba implies are like the Egyptian taskmasters, then the answer should be for the ordinary worker to be liberated from their job. But all Wirzba suggests (in the later chapter “Sabbath Economics”) is to join a community-supported agriculture project. Furthermore, resting together is not justice, it is equality. The state is the seat of justice, as Rushdooney argued in “Law and Society.” Sabbath justice is implementing the death penalty for non-compliance.

But like Rushdooney, Wirzba falls into a trap attempting to define contemporary applications from ceremonial laws given to Israel well over two thousand years ago. When Rushdooney examined the sabbatic laws of the land, he simply dismissed any consideration that they were completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ. “Clearly,” he said, “we have something more than ‘shadows’ here.” But Wirzba doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility that these ancient God-given laws spoke of Christ and His redemption rather than this present world and our right to own land and be debt-free. Sure, you can be “slave” to the institution that lent you money; but you can be a slave to your entrepreneurship, your 8-5 job, your home, your garden, even your pious ideas of Sabbath-keeping. And that is the overwhelming shortcoming of this book. It is all about trying to effect menuha in this world’s institutions, connections, and relationships rather than exulting in the soulical menuha in Jesus Christ.

Book Review “Biblical Portraits of Creation”

Cover_Biblical Portraits of Creation

“Biblical Portraits of Creation” is foremost a doxology to the triune God who revealed himself as the creator of all that exists. The authors, Kaiser and Little, draw their inspiration from twelve selections of Scripture ranging from Genesis to 2 Corinthians, and provide an impressive and intriguing study about creation. Not quite a commentary on each passage, each chapter gives ode to the marvelous riches of creation and the awe-inspiring power that brought it into existence. The book is designed for small church groups to increase the literacy of Christians about creation by demonstrating the unified voice of Scripture. Kaiser has impressive credentials as a contributor to this volume which is discernible in his frequent references to ancient Near East traditions and the Hebrew language.

Author Chapter Passage Topics
K 1 Proverbs 3:19-20; 8:22-31 Before the beginning was wisdom and knowledge
K 2 Genesis 1 Beginnings of the known and observable universe
K 3 Genesis 2:4-25 God’s garden work
K 4 Psalm 104 Poetic recapitulation and meditation on Genesis
K 5 Psalms 8; 19:1-6 Heavens and earth and man’s significance
K 6 Psalm 29 God’s voice commands creation and mankind
K 7 Psalm 33:6-13 God’s word is powerful and creative
L 8 Psalm 148 Praise for creation and redemption
K 9 Job 39-39 No one can call God to question
L 10 Matt 1:1-17 Beginnings of new creation
K 11 Isaiah 65:17-25; 66:22-24 When and how of new heavens and earth
L 12 2 Corinthians 4:6; 5:17 Experiencing the new creation personally

My interest in this book was two-fold. First of all, the creation account in Genesis is fundamental to any theological topic, so the author’s interpretation of the hexaëmeron is of interest to me as it bears on the creation-evolution debate, the authority of Scripture, and the historicity of Genesis 1-11. I hold that the creation occurred in the manner presented in the historical text. Secondly, the creation week is related to the Sabbath, and given the confusion the church has about the relationship of the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, I wondered if any such application would be made.
I was concerned about the endorsement of Hugh Ross, which led me to discover that Kaiser and Ross represented an “old age” creationist viewpoint in a debate with Ken Ham and Dr. Jason Lisle in 2006. The position Kaiser takes in the debate is not stated emphatically in this volume, which holds that God indeed created the heavens and earth ex nihilo “in the beginning,” but we can’t know when that beginning took place. Since the stars and our sun and moon were not created until the fourth day in the creation week, it casts doubt in his mind that God intended for us to understand each day as a real 24-hour day. Therefore, the creation of all there is could not have transpired as described in Genesis.
Yet this viewpoint does not seem to come across within the pages of this devotional book, though he mentions “eons that had perhaps preceded him [Job] during God’s work in creation.” They seem to affirm every detail about the creation week, but the reader has to wonder if the authors even belief it took place in a week. The authors assert that the Scriptures are true when they accord to God the fact that anything exists and they affirm repetitively that evolution cannot be responsible in any fashion for the life forms presently on earth. The inclusion of Kaiser’s previously published article, “The Literary Genre of Genesis 1-11,” as an appendix might assuage possible skeptics because he concludes that the initial chapters are “historical narrative-prose, interspersed with some lists, sources, sayings, and poetic lines.”
By largely avoiding the old age versus young age controversy, this leaves the authors open to questions about their motivation for writing this book. Be that as it may, this book is very honoring to the Lord for his first work of creation and the expectation of a new heavens and earth. It does inspire reflection on God’s greatness and grace. As an aside, the authors reveal that they believe the new heavens and new earth will take place “in time” at the outset of the millennium, and that rather than being a complete replacement of all creation, will be a “limited renovation.” Hopefully, this re-creation will not happen over the course of millions of years. Since it is a limited renovation, perhaps it will be accomplished in one day instead of six.
Several poetic passages of Scripture review the reality of creation. Among them are Psalms 8, 19, 29, 33, 104, and 148. Little’s review of Psalm 104 points out that the psalmist not only glorifies God for creation but for redemption, which is a re-creation of man. It is within the context of united praise—the praise of creation itself and the praise of those redeemed—that Little embraces the idea of worship among the saints. Coupled with his conclusions in Chapter 12, that “light” characterizes the life of the redeemed in Christ, Little encourages those who know this creator-God to worship Him “every Lord’s Day as the people of God congregate communally as the capstone of God’s creation to give expression of their praise to the one and only God!”
Each section of the book was well-written and laudatory of our Lord. “Our God has not left himself without a witness, which should arrest the attention of all mortals in all nations to move from the clear indications of his work in creation and the physical order of thing to learn of his work in redemption for us as well.” The Gospel of Matthew begins with its own generational statements likening it to a new Genesis book of origins, only this time culminating in Jesus Christ. Kaiser’s reflections on Job support the sovereignty of God and weaken our knees as he concludes, “God will not allow himself to be put in the dock at the pleasure of this creatures merely to justify his actions toward them.”
Overall, this is a worthwhile book because it proclaims the glory of God in creation, his goodness in sustaining the world after the fall, and finally his grace in the promise of a new creation.

Book Review “Creation, Tabernacle, and Sabbath”

timmer_book cover_

“Creation, Tabernacle and Sabbath” by Daniel C. Timmer


This is an expensive book (and impressive). The cost alone might well discourage those interested in this topic from making the purchase, but this book is sans pareil and a rare gem. Timmer, a Professor of Biblical Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Montreal, produced a research volume of exquisite detail and refinement. Every word is measured, accurate, and thoughtfully chosen; every section is cogent, deliberate, and thoroughly researched. Better still, Timmer believes this is God’s inspired word. A rough outline follows:

Ch “Title” Content
1 Introduction Explains results of previous studies of this passage and its themes. Presents his methods of research, goals, and significance of his study.
2 Exegesis of Frames Provides the surrounding context for frames and then dissects each frame via literary exegesis. Describes the Sabbath in relation to creation and national identity, and proposes the rationality of the author’s placement of the frames.
3 Reflections Discusses the themes of holiness, sanctification, and rest. Relates the frames to creation, tabernacle, and typology. Present a rationale for why the Sabbath was made a sign for Israel.
4 Exegesis of Core Examines the historical sequence of events, emphasizing the presence of God and Israel’s relationship to Him, with respect to the covenant and sanctification.
5 Reflections Discusses the dynamics of forgiveness and the interrelation of the Sabbath and tabernacle. Relates these themes to other covenants and the eschatological resolution of the problem of sin.
6 Related Works Explores parallels with Isa 65-66 and the NT interpretation of these themes in Hebrews. Examines applicable Jewish literature and demonstrates that sabbatic themes are present elsewhere in OT.
7 Conclusion Reviews conclusion of previous chapters

The subtitle identifies the pericopae that Timmer places under his microscope: “The Sabbath Frame of Exodus 31:12-17; 35:1-3 in Exegetical and Theological Perspective.” Here are the sabbatic frames:

Ex 31:12-17, NKJV
12 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
13 “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.
14 You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, 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.
15 Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.
16 Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant.
17 It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.'”

Ex 35:1-3, NKJV
1 Then Moses gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together, and said to them, “These are the words which the Lord has commanded you to do:
2 Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.
3 You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”

Sandwiched between these two passages is the historical account of Israel’s lapse into idolatry immediately following their exodus. Biblical criticism would envision an apparent patchwork of disjointed texts and claim that various sources were redacted to give us the final form of Exodus. However, Timmer’s meticulous dissection of the passage and its context demonstrates its cohesiveness through several thematic stands and literary devices.

While Moses was receiving instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, a noise from the camp arose. The fabrication of the golden calf with the oversight of Aaron demonstrated Israel’s dismissal of Moses, the mediator between them and God, which essentially stripped God “of the glory he deserves as their deliverer and possessor” (p 104). Recognizing that Israel’s sin interrupted God’s presence with them, as well as stirring His anger, Timmer wonderfully reviews the Lord’s progressive handling of that sin through Moses’ mediatorial work, with the ultimate goal of providing forgiveness while maintaining His righteousness. As an aside, Timmer posits that there is no discrepancy with the concurrent existence of the “tent of meeting” and the tabernacle tent, the former coinciding with the earlier tension between God’s presence and Israel’s unworthiness.

The fall of Israel after her birth from Egypt echoes the fall of Adam after his creation. Indeed, the historical link with creation provides a rationale for the placement of the two Sabbath frames as a literary device. The first Sabbath frame is written as a chiasmus which highlights its signal function for Israel and includes the capital threat for disobedience. This is the third occurrence of the word “sign” in the OT, preceded by its use with Noah and Abraham. The second Sabbath frame briefly reiterates Sabbath law and includes the prohibition from kindling a fire. Various theories explaining the prohibition are discussed. The Sabbath, with its emphasis on rest, is a covenantal sign of Israel entering not only into the Canaan rest, but God’s rest as modeled in Genesis. Once the covenant was restored, the Sabbath was repeated as the “apogee of the covenantal sanctification trajectory” (p 131).

Overlapping themes between Genesis 2 and Exodus 25-40 involve rest, redemption, presence or sacred space, holiness, sanctification and priestly functions (p 86). The problem of sin and God’s desire to reconcile a sinful people with Himself are the transcendent issues, but the historical elements of the OT are eschatological types of God’s ultimate solution to this dilemma. Regarding the seventh day of creation, Timmer avers that “the blessing and consecration may have reference to something other than a human sabbath” (p 45). Furthermore, the mention of creation in Exodus 20 emphasizes “the cessation of God’s work vis-à-vis the creation of the cosmos rather than on his behavior as an example for humanity” (p 71). Its mention also expresses “the eschatological or anticipatory nature of Yahweh’s commitment to sanctify Israel” (p 176).

With the proper understanding of the symbolic character of the seventh day and its relationship to the Sabbath, it is reasonable to conclude the typological nature of the Sabbath. “The rest to which the Sabbath pointed, since it is dependent upon a complete resolution of the sin problem, is contingent upon a future, final act of Yahweh” (p 141). “The concept of rest, even in the OT, also has a future component that stands, as synecdoche, for all the convenant’s promised benefits” (p 98). This is how the author of Hebrews understood the Sabbath rest, as foreshadowing “the final destination of believers” (p 164), not commanding a physical rest.

Timmer’s reasoned and balanced approach to the texts and contexts is extremely gratifying. He limited his observations and conclusions to what is actually present in the text and where alternative views and opinions existed, he respectfully dealt with them. Furthermore, he gives clarity to the thematic connections between Genesis and Exodus, and demonstrates that these themes continue through the remainder of the OT as a matter of divine interest and intent. Anyone who studies the Sabbath will, at length, realize that it is rich in theological material. This opens the door to a range of interpretive strategies, but Timmer possesses a comprehensive, yet finely tuned, sabbatology.

Review of “The Sabbath, Jesus, and Christians” by J.D. Greear

greear sabbath

Most evangelicals, working with a law-grace dichotomy, are not inclined to give the Sabbath a second look. However, once they start dabbling in Reformed theology (which is a good thing) they are apt to consider giving the Sabbath some playtime in their theology. Invariably, theological confusion ensues. This is especially true when such pastors exegete the Ten Commandments, for example: Pastor J. D. Greear’s latest contribution, The Gospel Project: God’s Way, which was recently excerpted and published online by Christianity Today and Black Christian News Network One.
Certainly, there are some unique features about the Sabbath: God placed it within the Ten Commandments and it shares the same frequency as the Lord’s Day. However, it does us well to keep in mind two facts about the Sabbath. First of all, the Sabbath is just one of many calendar ceremonies that call for rest (Lev 23). That is, rest is a recurring theme in Israel’s annual calendar. If rest is to be taken seriously as a spiritual discipline for Christians, then consistency demands that rest be observed more than just weekly. Secondly, there are several other rituals involved in Sabbath-keeping besides rest and remembrance. That is, there are seven pairs of laws that define and regulate proper Sabbath-keeping for Israel. Again, if rest and remembrance are to be understood as commandments for New Covenant believers, then consistency demands that fires are not started, travel is restricted, sacrifices are offered, showbread is prepared and offenders are stoned. This is the Sabbath of Israel.
“Christ has freed us from the technicalities of Sabbath law.”
This is an agreeable statement on the surface, but it begs this question: What are the technicalities of Sabbath law? It appears from what immediately follows, that Greear includes everything about the Sabbath, even rest, which is a symbol of the greater redemption from sin. However, he later distinguishes a “principle” in Sabbath law that requires Christians to observe a rest one day a week. He doesn’t specify a day, and perhaps this indicates what he means by “technicalities”. It is as if he asserts our freedom from the Sabbath only with respect to the day of the week we choose to rest. Better said that Christ has freed us from all the laws pertaining to the Sabbath.
“The early church believed that the resurrection of Jesus fulfilled the Sabbath.”
This is a true statement about the attitude of early Christians toward the Sabbath. They understood that God designed the Sabbath to forecast the redemption from sin in terms imbedded in its numerous laws. Avoiding work was an outward symbol for the Jews of the inward rest of spiritual tranquility only experienced in a future and finished salvation (Col 2:16; Heb 4:3, 10). Unfortunately, the church began to lose sight of the significance of the inner reality and began to promote the performance of the outward ritual.
“God declared the first Sabbath after He made the world and rested in it.”
This is Greear’s first erroneous statement. The first Sabbath was given to Israel shortly after the exodus from Egypt (Ex 16:23-30). God’s rest after creation was just that, a rest or cessation from creating (Gen 2:2). Sabbath and rest are expressed with two different Hebrew words. Rest is a feature of Sabbath-keeping, so that you cannot keep the Sabbath without resting. However, not all resting or ceasing is Sabbath-keeping. The idea that God’s rest IS a Sabbath inevitably leads to some conflicting ideas as someone fleshes out their view of this topic.
“Jesus’ resurrection was a new Sabbath, a rest from the work of redemption.”
This statement is superficially pleasing because it draws on the analogy between God’s rest after six days of creative work and Jesus’ “rest” after four thousand years of redemptive work. After all, He sat down at the right hand of the Father (Col 3:1; Heb 12:2; cf. Acts 7:55). In the NT, we learn that Jesus IS the creator (Col 1:16), so there are actually two incredible works that He finished. The analogy may work better if the new heavens and new earth are seen as the finality of the work of redemption, hopefully at the end of six thousand years of redemptive history. Historically, the church viewed Christ’s rest in the grave as the fulfillment of the Jewish Sabbath, and His resurrection was like the first day of a new creation full of the light of God’s life-giving glory (Gen 1:3-5). A new work was beginning, not a rest (Eph 5:14; I Thes 5:5). The church is living in the super-abundance of the eighth day.
Now, what are we to make of the idea that the “resurrection was a new Sabbath”? Putting the word Sabbath in quotes would have implied that the Sabbath was meant metaphorically, but it is not in quotes (see his use of quotes describing Christ’s resurrection as a “firstfuits”). So this “new Sabbath” of Christ’s resurrection following the “first Sabbath” of God’s creation seems to imply that if the “first Sabbath” is the reason for the weekly Sabbath given to Israel, then the “new Sabbath” entails a Sunday Sabbath for the church. This leads to his next section which advances the proposition that Christians are obligated to observe the Sabbath in some way.
“We should still observe the principle of the Sabbath.”
How is the observation of the Sabbath (i.e., Sabbath-keeping) different than the observation of the Sabbath principle? What biblical texts are supportive of this construct? Greear oscillates between the two covenants: at one moment the Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ and then back to Israel to observe the Sabbath.
He tells us that Jesus’ resurrection was a new Sabbath but Sunday is not the new Sabbath. Like many modern Evangelicals who downplay God’s choice of the first day of the week, he denies that Sunday is a day on which Christians everywhere must worship, yet he still avers that they “should still take one day a week to observe a Sabbath rest.”
The confusion continues. On a weekly basis, but not necessarily on Sunday, we are to observe a Sabbath rest. “But”, he says, the Sabbath rest is resting in the gospel. This is like telling the church to circumcise their newborn males, but not necessarily on the eighth day, but that circumcision really means to have our heart cleansed from sin. Having learned how Christ fulfilled the law of circumcision, are we to go back and observe the outward symbol as if Christ had not come? Is the Sabbath outwardly and literally obligatory upon Christians once a week or is it symbolic of a spiritual reality that was fulfilled in Christ and now experienced on a daily basis?
Holy contradictions are fine if you stick with the theme. The author of Hebrews says that we who have believed have entered into rest (4:3) and that he who has entered into his rest has ceased from his own works (4:10), but then goes on to urge his readers/hearers everywhere to labor to enter that rest (4:11). The tongue in cheek is obvious and exquisite. Rather than laboring to earn salvation, labor to understand the gospel and find endless rest for your soul through Jesus, a rest previously unobtained by unbelieving Jews (Ps 95:11; Heb 4:1-3).
“The gospel is the most life-defining reality for us.”
Greear ends on a beautiful note, though. His mission to proclaim the gospel as a life-defining reality puts him in the company of great men (1 Cor 9:16), to which I can only aspire. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the reality to which the shadows of the law once pointed (Col 2:16). That reality led to the re-defining of the relationship of both Jew and Greek to the Father in heaven, through Jesus Christ our Lord. That gospel freed us from those laws that spoke of better things (Heb 12:24), the Sabbath included.

Book Review “On the First Day of the Week”

On the first day_Campbell_cover

“On the First Day of the Week” by Iain D. Campbell

The goal of Campbell’s book is to restore what was lost in terms of Sabbath observance among Christians, not only on the isle of Lewis (Scotland) where he pastors a church, but across the globe if possible. He aims to bolster the relationship of the Sabbath and Lord’s Day in hopes of reversing trends among Christians that evince a decreasing appreciation for the Lord’s Day. That is, there is something in the Sabbath command that will make our Lord’s Day more honoring to God and more profitable for us.

His writing style is friendly and instructional. It is as if you are sitting down with him and hearing his perspective on things sabbatical. This does not necessarily mean that he is logical, accurate or consistent within his writings, but he does represent well the Puritan form of Sunday Sabbatarianism that eventually gave rise to modern seventh-day Sabbatarianism.

Campbell does not present many examples of how the Lord’s Day has taken a down turn, but here are a few of them.

  1. “It is now possible to buy groceries and petrol on the Lord’s Day…” (10, 200)
  2. “…and to leave from and arrive at our island…each Sunday” (10, 200).
  3. “…many Christians see nothing wrong with working or taking part in other activities on the Lord’s Day” (11) such as sports, birthdays, or employment (199).
  4. A triple jumper competed on Sunday and only earned a bronze medal (182-3).
  5. Rare that “you could recognize the churchgoing public by their appearance” (194).
  6. “Church life erodes …and gives way to new, ‘seeker-friendly’ forms of evangelism…” (196).
  7. “…times and days of worship must bend to accommodate the needs of [seekers]” (196).
  8. Christians “easily opt out of church when (they) would not miss an important social function” or they fail to attend both morning and evening services (198).

He summarizes his observations by stating, “If my Sunday activities are secular ones, then they are by definition unnecessary, and they fail to honour Jesus Christ” (195). Unfortunately, none of the above observations is supported by a scriptural command that confirms the sinfulness of these activities. However, I would agree that the day of corporate worship—Sunday—is best left on the day that the Lord himself has chosen.

The Sabbath of Old Testament was defined by a number of laws, seven pairs in my analysis. They are: 1) it occurs on the 7th day of each week, beginning Friday evening and ending Saturday evening; 2) remain within your home throughout Israel, though a representative convocation occurs at the temple in Jerusalem; 3) do no work, but rest; 4) consider the creation and consider the redemption from Egypt; 5) do not kindle a fire and prepare beforehand what you should eat; 6) sacrifice two lambs and bake twelve loaves each Sabbath; 7) punish Sabbath-breakers and stone the obstinate. However, Campbell does not enumerate them, nor does he discuss how these laws should be applied under the New Testament, with the exception that Christians must not work, but rest, attending two church services on Sunday, dressing appropriately, and consecrating the whole day to the Lord (171). This is a rather selective use of the law that appears to support only his modified Puritan form of Sunday Sabbatarianism.

Also, when tackling the Sabbath/Lord’s Day controversy, one would expect some critical analysis of the opponent’s point of view, but there is very little offered here. On the theological front, he mentions Lincoln and Bauckham from Carson’s anthology From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (1982), and Boice, Bruce and Bunyan minimally. It does not appear that he uncovers any really insidious doctrines or errors since he believes these men are, for all practical purposes, calling the Lord’s Day a “Christian Sabbath” (146). This calls into question his main thesis. Does the view that the Sabbath is a fulfilled commandment and therefore not binding on Christians really impact the Christian’s attitude toward and behavior on the Lord’s Day? Or are there other “forces” at work? Sure, they go shopping on Sunday after church, but Campbell does not demonstrate a connection between this and say, a decreased zeal for serving the Lord or a dampened heart of gratefulness for one’s salvation.

The bottom line, as Campbell agrees, is which viewpoint is consistent with the teaching of scripture (12). If Campbell is right, then Christians are enjoying themselves much more than they should on Sunday. If Campbell is wrong, then he is advocating the yoke of legalism instead of liberty.

The storyline of his book is broken down into eight chapters to show that the whole Bible supports a sabbatical theme and that the Sabbath is relevant to every culture since creation.

Ch Title Key Topics
1 God and the Sabbath 7th day rest; creation ordinance, morality of 10C; covenant
2 Moses and the Sabbath Redemption; holiness, work v. rest, extent of application; blessedness; sign; feasts
3 Prophets and the Sabbath Isaiah; blessedness; new moon; Amos; buy & sell; Jeremiah; burden; Ezekiel; given; profaned; Nehemiah; gates
4 Jesus and the Sabbath Nazareth; healing; Lord of the Sabbath; Sabbath made for man; death and resurrection
5 Apostles and the Sabbath Law; continuity v. discontinuity; Lord’s Day; Christian Sabbath; Shadow; sabbatismos
6 Puritans and the Sabbath Owen; Henry; Westminster Confession of Faith; Watson; Edwards; Sabbath-keeping; legalism
7 21st Century Christians Lordship; keeping the Lord’s Day; holiness; works of necessity and mercy; principles
8 Heaven and the Sabbath Redemption; holiness; worship; rest; resurrection; family


He begins with “God and the Sabbath” to advance the theory that God practiced the Sabbath and therefore it is a moral precept. However, what should be a matter of interest is that Moses did not use the word “Sabbath” at all in the book of Genesis, but he did use the word “rest.” The Sabbath, on the other hand, is associated with the covenant with Israel. The progression of his chapters is appropriate because the theme of REST is presented at the beginning of creation and as the final place and state of the redeemed. The final chapter was certainly uplifting.

There are many aspects related to the question of applying Sabbath law to the Christian’s Lord’s Day. Campbell touches on most of them, but he doesn’t explore them in sufficient depth to make his case. Indeed, the most important aspect of this discussion is whether the Sabbath command was ceremonial or not, but he does not review what any Reformation fathers wrote on that topic prior to the WCF. He seems to acknowledge some differences between the Mosaic Sabbath and the “Christian Sabbath”—which would imply acknowledgement of some ceremoniality of the Sabbath commandment—but he just doesn’t clarify his position. For example, he mentions that Christ’s sacrifice annulled the blood-letting commandments, but he doesn’t explain why the “bread of the presence” is no longer prepared on our “Christian Sabbath.” To justify moving the Sabbath to the 1st day of the week, he falters on explaining why the 7th day of the week is ceremonial, but the frequency of every 7th day is not. He hesitates to define “work,” yet states that it is “cessation from that kind of activity involved in the labours of the other six days” and “[turning] aside from secular labour, from all unnecessary labour.” But then he disagrees with those whose definition of unnecessary labor includes shaving, brushing a jacket or polishing shoes (56-57). If the definition of labor is ultimately decided by the individual, then what does that say about the supposed intrinsic morality of Sabbath-keeping? If blessings are ours for keeping the Sabbath, how can we know what activities put those blessings at risk?

So what makes some Old Testament laws ceremonial? In the context in which these laws were given, they appeared to be rooted in Israel’s history, specifically her redemption, and they guided her approach to God. Retrospectively, they are laws given by God in which the primary intent was to foreshadow the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the beneficiaries and benefits of His great salvation. So they are symbolical, metaphorical, and prophetical in contradistinction to reflecting the nature of God’s attributes, such as truth, faithfulness, and love. If we adopt the New Testament theological perspective of Paul and the author of Hebrews, ceremonial laws were types, shadows, and examples (Col 2:16; Heb 8:5; 9:8; 10:1). They were weak and unprofitable (Heb 7:18-19), and temporary (Heb 9:10) because they could not deliver what they seemed to be designed to deliver. They were old (Heb 8:13) and served as patterns to herald something better, newer, and more real (Heb 8:5-6; 9:23-24; 10:1).

So how does the Sabbath measure up? Does it typify something greater? Does it symbolize something redemptive? Did obedience to the Sabbath command deliver what it promised? Does the New Testament define the Sabbath as a type or shadow? Does the theme of rest escalate into something better and more magnificent? Is it similar to other ceremonial commands? Let’s review how Campbell speaks of the Sabbath.

“The Sabbath commandment is directly related to the theme of redemption……” (54)

“… Israel is all of God’s people (a spiritual, not an ethnic, Israel), and the covenant is now the new covenant, which has no need of ritual and ceremony.” (59)

“Within the tabernacle there were many things that were reminiscent of Paradise and of Redemption… It is in this context that God appoints the Sabbaths has signs of the covenant… The symbolism of creation is evident, therefore, as much in the Sabbath principle as in the tabernacle construction and its account.” (62-63)

“[Quoting John Frame] ‘The Sabbath is God’s dwelling in time, the temple is his dwelling in space’.” (63)

“Leviticus 23…outlines the annual programme of religious festivals which God asks his people to observe. Interestingly, these begin with the Sabbath regulation… This is full of theological significance.” (64)

“[Quoting Andrew Bonar] ‘And it [the Sabbath] is to be kept when all the other feasts have finished – a type of the deep rest yet to come when earth’s sins are swept away…” (64)

“Running through the calendar are the sabbatical principles of holiness, rest, consecration and worship which have been part of the experience of man from the beginning, and of Israel since her redemption. In them all, God was teaching his people through symbols and types.” (66)

“For that reason, while the Sabbath ceremonials have passed away, the Sabbath principle itself remains valid and binding.” (66)

“Each Sabbath was a reminder of God’s intervention in history through grace, in order to deal with the problem of sin.” (69)

“[Reflecting on the stick–gatherer who was stoned to death outside the camp] Is it not that Christ has suffered for us ‘outside the camp’ (Hebrews 13:11)? … He has brought the gracious aspect of redemptive history to its fullest revelation, so that now we see clearly what could only be dimly grasped before.” (71)

“… for Jesus the meaning of the Sabbath, as well as the weight of Old Testament prophecy, was concentrated in a unique way on his Person and Work.” (107)

“…the seventh day Sabbath gives way to the first day Sabbath, transferring the day signifying spiritual rest…” (129)

“The fact that Christ poured out his Holy Spirit on the first day of the week verified the typology, and showed that what the Old Testament had longed for was now here… There was to be no more Pentecost, just as there was to be no more Passover.” (130)

“The reality was that Pentecost always demonstrated that the first day of the week was to be significant, and that the old Sabbath was ready to give way to something better.” (130)

“There are many things in the Old Testament, such as sacrificial system and other elements of typology, which in themselves were unable to secure full pardon for the sinner. They anticipated the coming of Jesus Christ, whose work at Calvary rendered every other sacrifice and every other basis of our acceptance as obsolete and defunct.” (139)

“Outward symbols of covenant membership, like circumcision, count for nothing, now that Christ has offered himself up for us.” (141)

“… it is clear that Paul is referring to the old, Jewish, seventh day of the week Sabbath. That was, indeed, part of the shadow which anticipated the coming of a new revelation.” (148)

“It is not difficult to see how the early church, with the major transition from Judaism to Christianity which was going on across the Testaments, found it easy to fall into the error of thinking that rites and rituals from the older covenant should be carried over into the new.” (149)

“… the writer then links the ‘rest’ of the land of Canaan with God’s rest at creation (Hebrews4:4). The thought is that as God entered into ‘rest’ on the seventh creation day, so he provided a ‘rest’ which his people could enjoy in their inheritance of the promised land. Yet, as verse 8 demonstrates, Canaan could never have been the total fulfillment of the promise that God would give his people ‘rest.’ Ultimately, that rest is ours in the glory of heaven, the full and consummate enjoyment of the communion we have with God through the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ.” (152)

It should be obvious that Campbell cannot avoid describing the Sabbath in ceremonial or typological terms. If it looks, smells, and tastes like a ceremonial commandment, then it is quite likely a ceremonial commandment.

Pastor Campbell’s heart is in the right place. There is nothing wrong with encouraging believers to assemble together on the Lord’s Day each week. Like Campbell, I wish that all people who profess to be Christians would actually attend church regularly and contribute to the health of the body by practicing the “one anothers”. The author of Hebrews saw Jewish believers withdraw from the life of the church and so he admonished his readers “to consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together… (Heb10:24-25).” This is just common sense. The best antidote for worldliness and deception, despair and fear should be keeping company with fellow believers. But the author of Hebrews did not appeal to the Sabbath commandment because it was already causing nostalgic Hebrew Christians to separate from Lord’s Day worship. It is improper, in my mind, to appeal to the bygone Sabbath to promote the Lord’s Day. There is already enough theology in the Lord’s Day to promote itself.

If you are interested in reading a contemporary explanation of the Puritan’s view of a Sabbath-flavored Lord’s Day, then this is a good book to read. But read it critically.

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