The Case for the Christian Sabbath– Part Three

The Case for the Christian Sabbath– Part Three January 28, 2011

One of the interesting ideas in this book  (Tonstad’s The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day)  is that the Sabbath is a sign like a flag is a sign,  actually it’s a symbol— something which participates in the reality to which it points.  It points to God’s ceasing from his creative activity, and as such when Israel does the same they participate in such ceasing from creative activity. Just as people react violently in the U.S. to flag burning so Exodus says death is the penalty for violating the Sabbath, as it is sacred.

Another interesting idea is the relationship of Sabbath observance and creation keeping and care.   One of the more important aspects to Sabbath law is that it has concern for those most vulnerable and heavy laden— the beast of burden the slave, the resident alien (Exod. 20.10, Deut. 5.12-15) it prioritizes from the bottom up not the top down, with most concern for those who most need rest (pp. 126-27).  He calls the Sabbath year and the year of Jubilee, Sabbath satellites which extend the pattern of rest to debt and the need of the land for rest.

Isaiah 56.4-5 foresees a day when eunuchs and strangers who keep the Sabbath and hold fast the covenant will be given a place within God’s house and an everlasting name, a name better than sons and daughters.  Isaiah’s vision is about those who choose to do this, and so it goes beyond the ethnic view of a people.  Instead of an ethnic group we have a confessing community.

Isaiah 66.23 suggests that when new creation roles around it will involve new moons and Sabbaths.  But what it actually says is all flesh shall come to worship before me,  from new moon to new moon, from Sabbath to Sabbath.   Isaiah develops a Sabbath ideology that goes beyond Israel into an eschatological situation involving everyone.   He has the last word about Sabbath in the OT not Nehemiah or later OT developments.  And this vision of the end when lion lies down with the lamb involves the demise of the serpent he will bite the dust (Is. 65.25). “The serpent who at the beginning bit the fruit of the tree of knowledge will, in the end, bite the dust.”  p. 157.

For Tonstad’s case to work, namely that the Sabbath is for all people all the time, and not just specifically for Jews,  he must marginalize texts like Neh. 13.3 and maximilize Is. 56 and following, for Nehemiah  separates Israel from those of foreign descent and he admits (pp. 167-68) that the subsequent history of the Sabbath observance moves more along Nehemiah’s lines than  Isaiah’s vision. Nehemiah suggests to Tonstad an approach involving exclusion and coercion, something he sees continued with the Pharisees and Jewish officials in the Gospels (Mt. 12.2: Mk. 2.24; Lk. 6.2; John 5.16). Attempts to dilute Jewish distinctiveness and distinctive praxis are seen as threats to the national and ethnic identity  (cf. 1 Macc.1.1-61; 2.42.  Pharisees were believers in coercion.  A perceived attack on Sabbath observance was seen as an attack on exclusive Jewish existence, excluding Gentiles. Sabbath observance as an essential feature of Jewish identity.

Rabbi Levi: “If Israel kept the Sabbath properly even for one day, the son of David would come. Why/ Because it is equivalent to all the commandments  Exodus Rabbah 25.12

Rabbi Johanan in the name of Simeon be Tochai:  “If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately”  B.T. Shabb. 118b.

When we get to Jesus, why all these healings on the Sabbath, even non-emergency healings on the Sabbath. Are they deliberate provocations?  Is Jesus redefining work? Is Jesus redefining Sabbath and what it means to cease from work?     Pp. 182ff.   And why the vociferous objections to such healings in all the layers of the Gospel tradition?  One of the things which becomes clear in John 5 is that the identity of Jesus is revealed and wrapped up in these Sabbath healings. John 5.17-18— My Father is working and I am working amounts to a claim to equality with God, even in terms of what should and shouldn’t happen on the Sabbath.   Jesus’ opponent is not really, or not in the main ‘the Jews’ i.e. Jewish officials, it is Satan, the father of lies.

p. 194— glory in John means praiseworthy character, so I have seen his glory means I have seen God’s character,  his character revealed in Jesus.   But in John 12.23 it means ‘the time has come for the Son to be exalted/vindicated/ glorified.  The glory in 12.24 is a self-emptying, self-denying character, it is not self-serving.  (p. 195).   This is grounded in Isaiah 52-53. He lacks the usual meaning of glory—a brighty shiny appearance.  The Suffering servant is more like ‘Ichabod’— No glory.   Does Jesus break the Sabbath or repristinize its original meaning and intent?   Does he break the Pharisaic conception of the Sabbath and what it must entail?   Tonstad p. 200 sees Jesus’ ‘it is finished’ as an allusion to the Genesis 2.1-2 God finished.   On the cross and by Jesus’ death the finishing of the correcting what is wrong has happened.  Just as at creation the finishing of what was right and good has happened.     The new creation begins with the death of Jesus,  when the new covenant is cut, the sacrifice offered, the cutting off of the old self happens.

Tonstad seems to concede that the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is a caricature of Pharisees, or else depicts an especially sanctimonious Pharisee (pp.206-07) and likewise with Mt. 23 he sees this as hyperbolic polemic, not fair characterization or at least depict the radical fringe or extreme of the Pharisaic movement.

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