Looking into the Mirror: Remember the Sabbath Day

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 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. (Ex. 20:8-11).

This commandment has provoked much debate in the church over the centuries. What is the Sabbath? How does it apply to the church? There is also the ongoing discussion of whether we are to worship on the Sabbath or on Sunday, or whether those two things are the same thing. In this post we will look at some of those questions.

The Sabbath and Creation

The first thing we should take note of is the meaning of the word. Sabbath (or sabbat, or shabbat) means “rest, cease, intermission.” It literally, then, comes to mean a time (whether that is a day, week, year, etc.) of rest. It’s applied variously in Scripture to both people and the land. Israel was required to give the land a sabbath rest every 7 years (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7). In both cases (the seventh day and seventh year), the Lord would provide enough food for Israel in the previous day or year. (One reason that the Lord sent Israel into exile, He tells us, is that Israel failed to keep the sabbath year.)

Second, we should notice that the Sabbath is linked directly to creation. God tells Israel that the seventh day is “holy” (set apart) because He rested. Because God rested, He set the example and principle of a day of rest. (Of course, God needs no “rest,” in the sense that He gets tired or weary; He set the example for the benefit of mankind.) Because this is linked directly to creation, whatever principles are to be drawn from it are universal principles (i.e., the idea of Sabbath-rest is not restricted to the law of Israel).

When we look at the creation account, then, we see that God intended all mankind to have a time of rest (and since He set the example of one day in seven, it follows that He desires us to do the same). We must be quick to add, though, that He did not command Sabbath rest until He gave the law to Israel in this passage.

The Law of the Sabbath

When God gave the law to Israel, He was very serious about honoring the Sabbath. Anyone caught working on the Sabbath was to be stoned to death (Ex. 31:14). In fact, He dramatized the seriousness of it. We read in Numbers,

While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses (Num. 15:32-36).

Why was the punishment so harsh (from the human perspective)? Firstly, because the punishment is not tied to the “degree” of the sin but is rather tied to the majesty and holiness of the One who was sinned against. Secondly, it the nature of fallen humanity to do things our own way and to overlook some things as small (“Oh, that doesn’t really matter that much”). The example of discipline is meant to remind Israel (and us) that there are no “small” sins, and we are to be diligent to do things God’s way instead of our own.

The Sabbath in the New Testament

Jesus had much to say about the Sabbath. It seemed He was often coming into conflict with the Pharisees over the Sabbath. By this time, the Pharisees had added things to God’s law, even to the extent of how far a person could walk without breaking the Sabbath (hence the term “a Sabbath-day’s journey”). No doubt the early interpretations were done out of pure motives to protect the Israelites from violating the law. Yet, the Sabbath became the opposite of what it was intended. It became a burden instead of a rest. We instantly see the contrast between the Sabbath regulations and the statement of Jesus in Matt. 11:28-30, where His yoke is said to be light.

Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath

In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus has two separate but related confrontations with the Pharisees over the Sabbath. We read there,

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “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? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

In the first encounter, Jesus’ disciples were picking grain from fields as they walked along on the Sabbath. The Pharisees challenged their right to do this—not because it was a violation of Old Testament Law, but because it was a violation of the 39 types of “work” that the Jews had added to the Sabbath. The incident with David that Jesus references here is found in 1 Sam. 21:1-6. David and his men had gone to the priest of Nob (while on the run from Saul) and had lied to the priest about his purpose in being there. The priest gave him the consecrated bread, which was only supposed to be eaten by the priests. Yet, Scripture does not condemn his actions, and neither does Jesus. The comments about the priests profaning the Sabbath are referring to Num. 28:9-10. The priests were required to do “work” because of their Temple service yet were not guilty of breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus was not just correcting the Pharisee’s interpretation of the law or the fact that they added their own regulations to the law, but He was correcting their very approach to the Law. The Law was never intended to be a burden, and provided room to show that God is gracious, merciful and compassionate (Ex. 34:6-7). In the parallel passage, found in Mark 2, Jesus lays down another principle of the Sabbath: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Jesus was teaching that the Sabbath was given for man’s benefit, not to place more burdens upon him, as the Pharisees were doing.

Most importantly, Jesus declared Himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” Not only is this a reference to “Lord” in the sense of the Sovereign God of the universe, but it also refers to the fact that Jesus, as the Lord of all creation is the One who rightfully interprets the meaning and proper observance of the Sabbath.

It Is Lawful on the Sabbath

In the second encounter of Matthew 12, Jesus is in the synagogue shortly after the first encounter. In the synagogue was a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees asked Him whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath (in a parallel passage, He asks them, and they remain silent). He uses a simple analogy: if a man has a sheep that has fallen into a ditch, will the owner not rescue the sheep? Likewise, in Luke 13, when there was a woman unable to straighten her body, Jesus defended His actions by stating,

You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day? (Luke 13:15-16)

Therefore, as Jesus stated in Matthew 12, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. What is in view here is that the Sabbath is to be a day where normal “work,” the busyness of life, is set aside. That does not mean, however, that nothing can be done. From these and other similar passages, it seems that the idea is that the Sabbath rest is to be a day of focusing on the Lord, resting in Him and ministering to others as He gives opportunity.

Sabbath-Day vs. Sabbath-Rest

In talking about the Sabbath, we must distinguish the Sabbath day (which was the seventh day of the week) from the principle of Sabbath rest. The question has to be asked, “When God rested on the seventh day of the week, did He intend for all men to rest on that day of the week?” We also must be aware that the Jewish calendar, which the Law was based on, was not in existence at the time, so it’s an assumption to say the Lord started creating on Sunday and rested on Saturday.

The “law” of the seventh day was given to Israel, and no Gentile was ever put under the law. Paul and other New Testament writers consistently taught that the Gentiles were not under the law of Moses. How then should the church view the Sabbath? There are three primary passages that should guide our thinking:

All Days Equal, or Not?

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord (Rom. 15:5-6).

The first passage finds Paul writing about matters of conscience. In the section he talks about things that are amoral—being neither inherently wrong nor right. The two issues he mentions are observing kinds of days and eating meat (probably meat that had been sacrificed to idols; he takes a similar issue in 1 Cor. 8-10). Regarding special days, Paul says that some may conclude that certain days are better or should be special or more important, while others judge all days the same. He then says, “Let each be convinced in his own mind.” The one who observes certain days does so in honor of the Lord; likewise, the one who doesn’t observe a day does so by faith in the Lord. At the end of chapter 14, Paul echoes his earlier warning about each being convinced in his own mind.

He writes, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v. 23). Though he specifically mentions meat here, the same principle necessarily applies to observing specific days, since he uses the same reasoning.

A Shadow of Things to Come

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ (Col. 2:16-17).

In the second passage, Paul is dealing with a (mostly) Gentile church that is suffering from Jewish legalists and other false teachers trying to bring works alongside faith. His words are similar to the counsel he gives the Romans. Here, however, he specifically mentions observing a Sabbath day, in addition to other special days (some taken from Jewish tradition and some from pagan). Some might argue that Paul is only condemning the extra-biblical regulations concerning the Sabbath, but the context denies that. Particularly, Paul says, “These [and this includes the Sabbath] are a shadow of things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

Earlier in the discussion (vv. 13-15), Paul reminds the Colossians that the record of debt they had accumulated as a result of breaking God’s law had been cancelled by Christ’s death on the cross. And in vv. 20-23, he concludes his argument by calling all these things “elemental spirits [or spirits] of the world.” Since the believer has died to these things in Christ, Paul is asking why the church would put themselves back under them. This seems to be a clear argument that the “law” of the Sabbath day is binding on the church.

A Sabbath Rest

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his (Heb. 4:8-10).

In our final passage, the writer of Hebrews is encouraging his readers to continue to press forward, not becoming complacent. He begins the chapter by stating, “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it” (4:1). The idea is that there is a fixed time period for entering God’s rest (meaning one day, there will no longer be the opportunity). He reminds his readers that many have heard the message yet failed to enter the rest because of disobedience to the message.

Then, he makes this statement: “For we who have believed enter that rest” (v. 3). Thus, to enter the Sabbath-rest (God’s rest) requires faith, and those who believe enter that state of rest. He concludes his argument when he tells his readers, “For whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (v. 10). What does this mean? The writer is contrasting works and rest in terms of the gospel and salvation. Those who rely on works cannot be saved, but those who turn in faith to Christ and renounce their own works find rest, Thus, the Sabbath is a picture of the gospel, just as Paul said in Col. 2:16-17.

Rest in Christ

What does all this mean for us who are in Christ? Firstly, the Sabbath is neither a specific day nor a specific time to rest. Primarily, the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in Christ. He is our rest. In Him we cease from our attempts to earn our righteousness. The Sabbath for believers, then, is a state of being. Just as grace is not just something given, but a realm in which to live, so also is Sabbath rest.

Secondly, like many things in the New Testament, we do many things to honor Christ. The church meets on the Lord’s Day (Sunday, the first day of the week) to honor Christ’s resurrection. Thus, we can take a time to rest in Christ in honor of His work being completed. Many use Sunday as that day (or at least that is the thinking), but often the busyness of even church life belies our claim of the day being a day of rest.

Finally, one need not see Sunday as “the Sabbath” to honor Christ. As Paul says, let each be convinced in his own mind. The important thing is that we do take time to rest in the work of Christ, reflecting on what He has done for us, for in Him we have found our ultimate rest (Matt. 11:28-30).


Looking into the Mirror: The Name of the Lord

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.s (Ex. 20:7).

In this post, we will examine what it means to take the name of the Lord in vain. Many are confused about what this commandment does and does not refer to. Like all of God’s law, we’ll come to see that it is primarily a matter of attitude, elevating God to the place in our lives that He rightfully deserves.

The Name of the Lord

First, we need to look at and understand what is meant by “the name of the Lord your God.” The word for “name” is the Hebrew shem. It denotes primarily “name,” though it is also translated with such words as renown, fame, and famous. In Scripture, the idea of “name” includes much more than the actual name (John, Mike, Sue, Ellen). It also includes everything about the person; it identifies the person and his or her qualities. So it is with God.

The name of the Lord is identified in Scripture. Though He identifies Himself in many ways, He gave His covenant Name to Moses in Exodus 3, when He identifies Himself as “I am who I am.” Thus, it’s common to see the name YHWH written (rendered either Yahweh or Jehovah). The idea is that God is the self-existent eternal one, the creator and Lord of all that is, was, and will be. He is outside of space and time, dwelling in eternity.

The Lord also described Himself to Moses:

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex. 34:6-7).

Now we know the Lord’s name and His nature (at least a starting point, as finite as we are, we won’t ever know it all). He is first gracious and merciful. He shows steadfast love. He is holy and just. To us those are contradictory, but to a perfect God they flow together in perfect harmony.

Taking His Name in Vain

What does it mean, then, to take the name of the Lord in vain? The word for ‘vain” is the Hebrew word shav’, which is normally translated vain or vanity, but is also translated as false or lying. It also has the sense of emptiness or worthlessness. To use the name of the Lord in vain, then, seems to mean that it is used in a useless, empty, or worthless manner (i.e., flippantly or casually).

We take Lord’s name in vain when we use it for purposes contrary to what He desires in Scripture. We are to call out to Him for help, worship Him, and make our requests known to Him. Other than those purposes, we risk violating this commandment. This certainly would include using His name as an expletive or space-filler.

Why is this such an important issue? Because it deals with the sacredness and holiness of God. When we use His name for casual purposes, we are diminishing that holiness and glory. Perhaps we haven’t fully understood it in the first place. When we do that, we are essentially giving God’s glory to something or someone else, and He has declared, “My glory I will not give to another” (Is. 48:11).

How are we to avoid this commandment? Not by overly scrutinizing everything we say, but rather by placing our focus on where it belongs—the glory of the Lord. We need to ask Him to give us an image of His glory, so that we can fix it in our minds and hearts. Then we will be able to judge what we say, whether it be in vain or not.

Looking into the Mirror: The Image of God

You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Ex. 20:4-6).

For many Christians in the west, this passage may seem to be virtually irrelevant. What possible truth could it have for us today? In this post, we’ll see that the commands here go much farther than just carving out images.

Surrounded by Pagan Culture

As we mentioned in the previous posts, Israel was surrounded by pagan cultures. Even though out of Egypt, Israel still encountered other cultures on the way to the Promised Land. The Lord thus was giving these commands to insulate Israel from such pagan worship practices. Israel was to be separate and set apart to God, thus the nation was not to copy of the practices of other cultures or religions or add them in any way to the worship of Yahweh (an idea called syncretism).

The Scope of the Command

Notice first that the Lord said, “You shall not make any graven images.” Does this mean that other types of images would be acceptable? Since that was the only type of images a people could produce at the time, it seems likely that the Lord was speaking in their terms. Thus, if He were giving the command today, it would include all the technologies that are available to make images. This surely includes not only sculptures, but also photos, drawings, paintings, etc. The command would include any means of producing images.

Notice also that the Lord said, “You shall not make any graven images,” and then proceeds to define “any.” Israel was not to make an image of anything in the heaven, or on the earth or in the water under the earth. That runs the gamut of possibilities, whether it be people, animals, birds, fish, stones, whatever.

Finally notice that the Lord said, “You shall not make any graven images . . . [to] bow down to them or serve them.” If the Lord had not included this limitation, one might rightly get the idea that one could not make images at all! No art! This, however, is the real limitation of the command. It was common practice for the nations around Israel (and in many religions today) to have symbols representing gods, that the people would worship. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, even set up a golden image of himself for the people to worship (Dan. 3).

The Reason for the Command

Why was this command necessary? God had already told Israel not to have any other gods before or alongside Him (see “No Other Gods”). The thrust of this command, then, must have been to prevent Israel to making an image to represent Yahweh. Before continuing, we should note that the Lord, in His instructions for the tabernacle did give directions to fashion cherubim that would be attached to the Mercy Seat (the Ark). Yet, Israel was not to worship the cherubim, nor was she to worship the Ark.

Why would God prohibit an image of Himself? Because no image can fully represent Him. It’s impossible for an image created by a finite human to represent the infinite God. He will not be limited (or ‘put in a box’) by our conception of Him. Even the pages of Scripture cannot fully contain all that He is (though they do contain all that He has revealed Himself to be). Thus, if we worship a limited version of God (through an image), we are worshipping another God (a violation of the first commandment).

A Jealous God?

In giving this commandment, God is described as jealous. What does that mean as applied to Him? We are told to not be jealous. The Hebrew word for jealous in this passage is qanna’; it is a word that is used only in reference to God being jealous. It speaks of God not allowing any rival to Himself, much as a husband has a right to have the undivided love of his wife. As God over all, Yahweh has the right to pure and undivided worship.

As we said in previous posts, God also demands this because He knows that only He can meet the deepest needs of man. Thus, He is jealous that we come to Him with our needs, not some false or limited god that has no power. We see this in His statement that He visits (not punishes) “the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.” Taken in context, this refers to those who worship false gods (though it is surely true of other sins as well). Anyone who lives a life contrary to His commandments is said to “hate” Him, but Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). John taught the same: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).

What it Means for Us

What do we as believers do with this commandment? First, it seems clear that we are not to make or possess anything that might represent God, so that we worship it. Whether that includes drawings or paintings of Jesus is unclear. Jesus is, after all, fully human in addition to being fully God. We don’t really know what He exactly looked like (such pictures are guesses, some educated, some not). The best approach would seem to be caution about this.

Second, and more importantly, we are to put aside any limitations or preconceived notions of what God is like. He is much more than the best minds among us can discern. We are to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), and while fallen man often wants a point of focus, he is called to walk by faith, responding to God as He reveals Himself.

Finally, to visit the last part of the passage, this God who will not be limited by humanity’s vision of Him is one who shows “steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” He is the faithful One whose Word never fails us. As we worship Him and Him alone, He showers us with His amazing love and grace.

It is because of this passage that Paul can write the following:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Eph. 3:20-21).

The Lord who reigns over all can do so much more than we ask or think because he IS so much more than we can ever think or imagine.

Looking into the Mirror: No Other Gods

You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3).

The first commandment that God gives to Israel (and thus to all) is the logical one: Have no other gods before Me. This may seem an obvious command to many, but we have to remember the context. Israel had just left Egypt with their many gods and was going to a land of many different cultures, and thus many different gods. Yahweh was thus warning Israel against getting entangled with the gods of that land.

Other Gods

Are there other gods? Isn’t the Lord (Yahweh) the only true God? He is indeed. He tells us,

See now that I, I am He,
And there is no god besides Me;
It is I who put to death and give life.
I have wounded and it is I who heal,
And there is no one who can deliver from My hand
(Deut. 32:39, NASB).

What does it mean, then to have another god before Yahweh? The Bible tells us that fallen man has rejected the knowledge of the truth and the true God (Rom. 1:18-32), setting up gods of his own making. To the unbeliever, these gods are as real (or more so) than the true God. His mind is darkened, and he has excluded the true God.

In truth anything or anyone can be a god. In the abstract, god simply means someone or something that calls the shots in my life. The atheist says, “There is no god,” but he has simply made himself god of his own life (he calls the shots).

Before Me

What does it mean to put something or someone “before” God? Again, the question seems obvious. At first glance the term (rightly) seems to suggest primacy of place. We are to allow nothing and no one to claim the place that Yahweh has reserved for Himself. Later in chapter 20, the Lord repeats the command but with a subtle variation. We read,

You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold (Ex. 20:23).

Notice the subtle difference here. Not only was Israel commanded to not put any god “before” Yahweh (i.e., in His place), but they were also commanded to not make gods to “be with” Him (or alongside Him). He will tolerate no rival to His throne. This command eliminates any possibility of syncretism (mixing various forms of worship with the worship of the true God).

A Jealous God

Why is Yahweh so demanding in this regard? Is He simply a jealous deity that longs for all the attention? The answer to that is, “Yes.” He describes Himself as a jealous God (v. 5). He is jealous of His position, yes, but He is jealous for our protection. The gods of man’s creation are in reality no gods. They have no eternal power. Following such gods only leads to confusion, darkness, and destruction. Centuries later, the Lord would show what happens when men opt for lesser gods. He spoke to Jeremiah,

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate,” declares the Lord, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:12-14).

When man follows false gods, he is inevitably left dry, thirsty, and dead. False gods cannot satisfy the soul; only Yahweh can do that. The sad thing is that He longs to do that. Jesus pleaded with the thirsty to come to Him:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matt. 11:28-29).

How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Matt. 23:27)

If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38).

In addition to being an affront to the character and holiness of God, putting anything before or alongside Him in our lives must break His heart, as He stands ready to meet every need of the human soul. All we need do is turn from those things in repentance and turn to Him in faith.