The Case for the Christian Sabbath— Part Two

(Continuation of the Review of Tonstad’s book on the sabbath)

As is well known, Paul connects the new covenant with the Abrahamic covenant, in distinction from the Mosaic covenant, and thus it becomes important for Tonstad that somehow he connect Abraham to Sabbath observance and the Sabbath commandment.  His attempt to do this is weak, because the most he can muster is the fact that Abraham is said to keep some commandments of God, though there is no evidence whatsoever that he kept the Sabbath.  It is entirely an argument from silence to suggest Abraham was a sabbatarian, and indeed Paul’s distinctions between the Abraham and Mosaic covenants should have warned us against such a reading of the Abraham story.

To a real extent, a person’s theology of rest is going to be determined or affected at least,  by their theology of work.  If work is seen as a curse, then rest is seen as an inherent blessing, and so the two are viewed as reciprocal.  But there is a problem with this whole perspective as I have shown in a different context (see my new book Work:  A Kingdom Perspective and also the previous book in this series We Have Seen his Glory. A Kingdom Perspective on Worship (both by Eerdmans).  The problem is twofold: 1) worship is not necessarily the same thing as rest, and 2) work is not a curse.  The inauguration of the Sabbath day (Exod. 16) is an attempt to get Israel to once more focus on the worship of the one true God after years when there had been nothing but slavery and work.  With freedom came the opportunity and obligation to worship, and God set up for them a weekly practice which involved rest from other activities, but not from worshipping God.  Tonstad makes much of the fact that the Exodus 16 text says that God remembered his promises to Abraham.  Indeed, he did, but he did not promise Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob a Sabbath observance, nor is there any hint they observed such a day in Genesis.  He promised them a relationship,  a homeland, descendants, and some freedom from oppression.  Now we learn in Exodus 16 that the most important part of the freedom was freedom to continue cultivating that deep relationship with God,  freedom to worship and Exod. 19.4 says that God had not merely delivered Israel but ‘brought you to myself’.   The real goal was more a promised relationship than a promised land.  Or better said it was both with the emphasis on the promised ongoing relationship.

Close examination of Exodus 31.13-17  reveals that the Sabbath pattern is a sign between God and Israel, a perpetual covenant between God and Israel, a reminder that it is God who hallows and sanctifies things, including his own people.   Nothing is said or suggested here about such a covenant with humankind in general, or that God had made such a covenant with all of humankind before the Exodus Sinai events.  Remembering the sabbatical pattern of God’s creation is one thing,  remembering a previous ordinance to observe a Sabbath by a people is another, and Exodus does not ask Israel to remember such a previous ordinance, it ask them to remember God’s creation pattern, and God’s covenant faithfulness with the patriarchs, a different matter.

What fallen people, who endure suffering, sin, and sorrow, disease, decay and death  need far more than rest and restoration is resurrection which makes them immune to all the effects of fallenness. And whereas the retrospective old pattern of liberation focused on a day of rest and restoration, and thereby of renewal of a personal relationship and worship,   what the new pattern of liberation focused on was not on the old sort of redemption, a mere freedom from,  but  on a new sort of redemption and salvation that enabled a freedom to.   Worship in light of the eschaton is not worship that makes allowances or is a response to  the Fall with its breaking of the relationship with God.  Worship in the light of the eschaton is worship in Spirit and in  truth whenever and wherever.  It does not require a holy spot  (Mt. Zion)  nor does it require a holy day, for all days in the eschatological view are holy unto the Lord.  Eschatological worship looks forward to not merely when we will study war no more, but when there will be no more night.  New heaven and new earth is not a mere continuation of a sabbatical pattern, it is the completion of a new covenant with humankind, the fulfillment of the promise of Easter and the first resurrection, the raising of Jesus.  There is a reason why there is no temple in the new creation,  and it is because there is no division between sacred and secular days, zones, places anymore, something Jesus announced in John 4 already.  Paul foresaw all this clearly when he says that while some observe one particular day unto the Lord, others see all days as the Lord’s days,  and he thinks they are right.  He thinks we shouldn’t insist on anyone observing a Sabbath day anymore, not because he has given up on rest, restoration, or worship, but because since the resurrection of Jesus now we are looking forward to when all days are hallowed.

The sabbatical pattern is a pattern for God’s people in a fallen world, a world where there is night, where there is need for rest,  where work is never done, never completely finished. It is not a pattern from or for the eschaton, where there is no night, no need for rest, and work is complete in various senses.  The question is whether Christian worship and life should be patterned on kingdom come that is still to come, or on the original old creation pattern,  whether Christian worship and life should be about new life, resurrection life in Christ, or the old birth, the old creation, the old creatureliness the old need for rest and restoration.  My answer is, we are not under the old creation, old covenant mandate anymore.  We are under a new covenant mandate and we should daily remind ourselves, “if anyone is  in Christ there is already a new creation” .  The Sabbath mandate is for those who have been born, and in particular for those in Mosaic covenant with God.  The new creation, new worship  mandate is for those who have been born again of water and Spirit, who live out of the future and not primarily the past who live out of the eight day— Easter morning, and not the seventh the close of the old creation work week.

Were Adam and Eve, before the Fall given a commandment to keep the seventh day holy?  Nope.  Their only commandment was to stay away from the tree of  the knowledge of good and evil.   Was toilsomeness in work due to a fallen creation said to be something inherent in the nature of work, or was it said to be part of the curse on the ground due to the Fall?  The latter, and rest in that context becomes relief from the effects of the Fall on work,  not part of the original creation mandate.  (To be continued)

  • Steve Rhodes

    Hi Dr Witherington,

    I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary, though I never had the pleasure of being one of your students, I have gained a lot from your commentaries. I recently found your blog and have enjoined the recent post as well as your past post on the TNIV and the upcoming updated NIV. I am sorry to go off topic, but I wanted to see if you could commit on the NIV more. One of my professors from Asbury said the NIV is inaccurate. He said: The NIV is simply a poor translation in many portions of the NT. And it, too, has a Reformed bias at points, as when it translates sarx as “lower nature” or the like.” Do you agree with this? I know there is no perfect translation and scholars have their preference. I have recently switched from using the NASB almost exclusively to using that for study (with the GK/Hebrew) and using the NIV for general reading, teaching and preaching. thanks for your thoughts.
    blessings,
    Steve Rhodes

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Any translation is a work in progress, and I don’t believe in canonizing any one translation above others. Mostly I do my own translation, but I do think the TNIV and NIV are most of the time better than the NRSV and various other translations. It is true there are some glimpses of Reformed zeal in the translation of some texts, but frankly its a better translation than the Wesleyan one, the New Living.

    BW3

  • Steve Rhodes

    thanks, appreciate your wisdom


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