WHILE listening to a sermon by E. E. Heppenstall I was particularly impressed by one statement he made. He emphasized that we do not need to reorient or reshape our message as much as we need to approach the essential categories of that message with a new spirit. The point is that we do have a message that is unique.
A few years ago Walter Martin and Donald G. Barnhouse visited the General Conference brethren for discussion on our religious beliefs. At the conclusion of their inquiry, they took our hand in Christian fellowship on the basis that we share with them the same evangelistic hope. But they also made clear that they continued to think of the Sabbath, as well as some of our other unique concepts, as extraneous to the centrality of the gospel. If we cared to retain such peripheral issues, that was all right, provided we remained within the broad compass of the Christian witness.
More Weight Than It Can Bear
The reason why they take this position is, of course, perfectly obvious. They are well aware of the evidence we present from the Old Testament concerning the authenticity of the Sabbath as we believe it. But, they feel, our arguments regarding Christ and the Sabbath are somewhat inadequate. Frankly, I am inclined to agree with them. I do not see that it is a proof of Christ's permanent acceptance of the Sabbath to cite that it was His custom to worship in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. Where else and on what other day would a Jew be likely to worship? Neither does it seem a very cogent argument to present the statement of Jesus that His disciples should pray that their flight from Jerusalem under siege should not be in the winter nor on the Sabbath day. If one wished to disagree, one might argue, as these men do argue, that certainly the Jews would be keeping the Sabbath when Jerusalem would be invested by the Roman armies, and that Christ was merely referring to this fact. I do not say that our argument is not valid. Rather, I would say, it is being asked to carry more weight than it should bear. There are much stronger evidences for the Sabbath in the record of the life of Jesus Christ and in His relationship to the important question of the Sabbath.
Life in Four Dimensions
When God first created man, He made him a four-dimensional creature: mental, physical, social, and spiritual. For his physical development he was given the care of the garden. For his social background he was blessed with the companionship of a wife and family. For his mental growth he must learn restraint—in the midst of an abundance of possibilities he must respect God's injunction to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For his spiritual development God gave him the Sabbath. And the essential point is that the Sabbath was given for man. It was given in order that man should develop spiritually.
When the Sabbath was restated amid the splendors and majesty of Sinai, it was restated on a national basis. Instead of a rabble of slaves escaping from their Egyptian masters, the children of Abraham were being transformed and molded into a nation. The Sabbath was not given to them within this new national framework.
Evil Results From Sabbath Breaking
The prophets, Jeremiah in particular, made it very clear that one of the great tragedies of the Jewish people as a nation was their failure to keep their Sabbaths. One of his more pathetic statements was that the Lord would give the land seventy years rest that it might keep its Sabbaths while the people should go back again into captivity, this time in Babylon. After their return from that period of renewed bondage, when again they were violating the Sabbath, Nehemiah emphatically told them to keep the Sabbath, to avoid at all costs its continued violation, because it was due to this very sin that evil had come upon their fathers.
The centuries that followed the close of the Old Testament canon brought bitter experience to the Jews. They learned in the fiery crucible of national persecution and foreign invasion that the way of the transgressor is hard. In the three centuries before the coming of the Christ, the great problem to the nation was the all-pervasive Greek culture. Everywhere throughout the ancient world Hellenism was the dominant mood. Syrian conquerors sought by force to impose this alien way of life upon the Jews. Despite heroic resistance under the Maccabees, the gradual infiltration of Greek ideas and customs continued apace throughout the land. The process was accelerated by the Hellenization of the Jews of the dispersion.
By the time of Christ the Pharisees had become the defenders of the national traditions. Like all minority groups thrust into a defensive position, they became the more intransigent and unyielding with every fresh wave of Hellenic culture. To the popular mind in Palestine, the Pharisees became the embodiment of all things Jewish. They were the defenders of the faith, the interpreters of the law, and the preservers of the fundamental values which had made the Jews a nation. Since the Sabbath was central to Jewish religious and institutional thinking, the Pharisees were particularly concerned to defend its sanctity. They hedged it around with hundreds of laws, each new one more impossible than the last to observe. However well-intentioned men and women might be, they were utterly powerless to keep the Sabbath in any reasonable way. Those who didn't understand the law were the ignorant, and this group included the vast majority of the people. Within their own nation, the custodians of the Jewish law had developed an unfortunate elitism, and everyone outside the traditional party was regarded as the accursed of God. There was no vision, there was no vastness of concept within Judaism as it was usually practiced by the time of Christ. Into this situation Jesus came and entered into His work of ministry.
In Mark 1:32 we read: "And at even, when the sun did set, they brought unto him all that were diseased, and them that were possessed with devils. And all the city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many that were sick of divers diseases, and cast out many devils; and suffered not the devils to speak, because they knew him."
It is clear from this text that at the beginning of His ministry, Christ was very careful to avoid acts of healing upon the Sabbath. He knew that once He broke the Pharisees' rule He would arouse tremendous opposition from within their ranks. It was sound strategy for Him to proceed slowly at first, and to gradually unfold the course of His reforming ministry. Yet we have the record in the Gospel of John, chapter five, that when Jesus, some few months later, came to the paralyzed man lying beside the pool of Bethesda, He healed him on the Sabbath day. Quite obviously He could have done this on any one of the other six days. A man crippled for thirty-eight years—Christ had no immediate urgency to heal him on that one day. He could have waited one more day. The very fact that Jesus selected this man, and healed him on the Sabbath day, indicated that Jesus was using this incident as a test to inaugurate a program of Sabbath reformation. The reaction was immediate. The Pharisees moved upon the man and through him upon Jesus. "And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day" (John 5:16).
Deity and Sabbath—Focal Points
In defending Himself, Jesus claimed that His Father had never ceased working and that He was working too. In other words, His defense was: "If an act of healing has taken place, then you can hardly deny that this act requires the agency of God. If I have been the instrument used in the performance of this act, and you are condemning Me for violating the Sabbath day in healing this man, then are you prepared to be consistent and logical and to blame God who used Me? Are you separating the Sabbath from God Himself?" Of course, they had no answer. And since they had no answer, they persecuted Him, not only because He had "violated" the Sabbath but also because He claimed to be One with His Father. And these were the two focal points of the opposition that rapidly developed against Christ in the land of Judea.
"After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him" (John 7:1). Since this verse applies to a period that comes several months after the Bethesda incident, we might justly ask ourselves: Why were the Jews in Jewry seeking to kill Him? As a matter of fact, Jesus asked them this same question. He said: "Did not Moses give you the Law? Yet you all break it. Why are you trying to kill me?" (John 7:19, N.E.B.).* Since they were condemning Him, presumably for violating the law, this was a just question. The crowd retorted that He was possessed of a devil. Jesus then said: "Once only have I done work on the Sabbath, and you are all taken aback. But consider: Moses gave you the law of circumcision . . . and you circumcise on the Sabbath. Well then, if a child is circumcised on the Sabbath . . . why are you indignant with me for giving health on the Sabbath to the whole of a man's body? Do not judge superficially, but be just in your judgments" (verses 2124, N.E:B.).*
Christ Risked Career for True Sabbathkeeping
At this point in His career, opposition to Jesus focused on His manner of Sabbathkeeping. The Sabbath itself was vitally important both to the Christ and to the Jewish leaders. Where they differed was how it should be kept. Can anyone argue that the Sabbath is a minor issue when Christ was prepared to risk the success of His ministry on the detail of the interpretation of Sabbath observance? Why, if the Sabbath was so unimportant, would Jesus risk the whole activity of His career by doing something that would bring against Him the consolidated opposition of some of the most powerful groups within the nation?
Sabbath or God at the Center?
In Mark 2:23 we have the record of Jesus and His disciples walking through a cornfield somewhere in Galilee. Evidently spies among the crowd following them were taking careful notice of His actions, for it was the Sabbath day. When the disciples took some of the corn, rubbed it together in their hands and ate it, the spies immediately challenged them. In reply, Jesus stressed the fundamental principle which we have already noticed, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (verse 27). But He also emphasized that the Son of Man, being Lord of all men, is Lord also of the Sabbath clay. That atoning grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, expressed in His taking man's body, and dying man's death so that mankind having faith in Him might be raised to heavenly pinnacles of grace and glory, makes Him Lord of all men. The Son of Man is our Lord, our King, because He is of our nature. Thus He is Lord also of that Sabbath which was made for man. The Sabbath and its observance falls within the larger compass of man's redeemed relationship to God through Jesus Christ his Lord. Only within this understanding can the Sabbath be truly kept. Its observation outside this framework will lead to an oppressive legalism—joyless and tyrannical—and to an idolatry which has the Sabbath rather than God at the center of its worship. This was the fundamental error of the Jews. It can equally be our mistake within our own church life if we, too, fail to catch this larger vision.
(To be continued)
The New English Bible, New Testament. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961.