A recurring error of evangelical Christianity is to dislocate itself from the evangel, the gospel. That is, despite its claim to be gospel- and grace-centred, it slips all too easily into being law-centred, and grace becomes the casualty.
To say this is in no way to imply that God’s law is not important or does not have a place in the life of the church. Rather, it is to say that the relationship between law and grace is reversed often without realising it.
We are never the recipients of God’s grace because of our efforts to obey God’s law; but we are enabled to obey his law because of his grace extended to us in salvation. Although some try to argue that this relationship is a feature of the new covenant, it is actually deeply rooted in the old. And nowhere is that clearer than in the way God’s law is presented in the Ten Commandments.
When God presents Israel with the Decalogue while they are encamped at Mount Sinai, he does not merely give them his law. He prefaces it with a brief, but utterly crucial statement about himself and his unique relationship with them as his people.
He says, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’ (Exodus 20:2). In other words, before Israel was to consider what God required of them, they needed to remember what he was in relationship to them. He was not merely their God who demanded their obedience, but their Lord — their Saviour-God — who had freed them to be able to obey.
All of this ties in with what God says about the Sabbath as his specially designated day of rest, not just in the fourth commandment, but also in the wider flow of Sabbath teaching throughout the Bible.
It is only as Israel (and the people of God through the ages) see the Sabbath law in the wider context of the Sabbath principle that the law can function in the way God intended. And that is where God’s people have so often struggled. When this law is viewed in isolation from God’s grace, it becomes a burden and not a blessing.
Even the most cursory overview of the place and function of the Sabbath in the Old Testament (even before the law was formally enshrined in the Decalogue) shows how this is the case. The fact God instituted this special day as the crowning blessing on his already blessed creation points to this.
The fall had not yet happened; the curse of ‘toil, sweat and weariness’ (Genesis 3:16-19) was not yet part of the human condition; and yet God marked the day off, not merely as a one-off celebration of his creative work, but one that was ‘holy’ (Genesis 2:3). That is, he ‘set it apart’ — ring-fenced it as special — because it was designed to nurture the relationship between man and his creator.
So, far from somehow curtailing his enjoyment of God’s good creation, the Sabbath was intended to safeguard the one relationship through which creation can be properly enjoyed. The Sabbath was not intended to be an antidote to something negative already lurking in the world. Rather, it was intended to enrich the life of these first two human beings by drawing them into closer communion with their maker.
There was nothing that needed to be put right in their lives at that stage, but what was already good had all the potential to become better as their relationship with God was deepened.
The relative silence on the issue of Sabbath from Genesis to the giving of law at Sinai should not be read as meaning the Sabbath was ignored during that period. Moses clearly reminds Israel of its place and importance before they had arrived at Sinai, when giving instructions about manna and the fact they were not to try to gather it on the Sabbath (Exodus 16).
But, when the Sabbath is included in the Decalogue, it becomes the basis for a wider application of the Sabbath principle as God institutes the Sabbath year (Leviticus 25:1-7) and Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-17).
In both of these applications of the Sabbath principle, God’s clear intent was for the restoration and refreshment of his people. In the case of the Sabbath year, it was for the refreshment of the land (to avoid it being exhausted and rendered incapable of sustaining the people). And, in the case of the Jubilee, it was designed to provide for the restoration of the people: debts cancelled; property returned to the families to whom it belonged; and people who had sold themselves into slavery granted freedom.
In light of this, it is hardly surprising that the year of Jubilee is explained in the prophecy of Isaiah as a vivid, tangible foreshadowing of the ultimate debt-cancellation and release of captives that would be ushered in when Messiah came (Isaiah 61:1-2). And that when he did come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, it is this very passage he quotes as he begins his ministry on earth (Luke 4:14-21).
By quoting these words, Jesus showed the blessings of rest associated with the Sabbath are intimately bound up with those provided in salvation.
Next month we shall see how this connection is spelled out more fully in the New Testament. But let me finish with this thought: the Sabbath was never meant to be seen as a restriction; rather, God’s way of enabling us to focus on what matters most in life.