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.