Sabbath: a memorial of freedom

The Sabbath is one of God's memorials that shows us how much He loves us.

Larry H. Evans, D.Min., is the undersecretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Memorials of great persons and great events fill the Washington, DC area. On a recent tour, one monument gripped my attention: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a long black granite wall artistically curving over a large piece of land with flowering bushes and rivulets of water. Etched on the wall are some 58,349 names of the American dead and the missing. Thousands walk by this monument each day, in solemn silence, with heads bowed. Some stop and cry. On my visit, I looked for the names of my cousin and college classmates who lost their lives.

Some time later, when I visited northern Vietnam, my guide showed me little monuments in various hamlets recognizing those of that country who also died in the same war.

Erecting memorials seems to be a universal practice to honor the sacrifice people make for their country, and also possibly a reminder of lessons to be learned. Memorials are important. Without them, we would soon forget the significance of our roots, the meaning of the present, the flow of history—and perhaps, even the hope for the future.

God has memorials

God also has set memorials for us: to remind us of His love, to let us know that He never forsakes us, to authenticate that there is a future filled with certainty and hope. He tells us through Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (Jer. 29:11, 12, NIV). Some of God’s memorials are familiar to us: the Cross, baptism, Communion service. But in this article I want us to consider an almost forgotten memorial that has cosmic significance.

Go back to the story of Exodus. God’s people were in bondage for over four hundred years. At last God raised Moses to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. This was to be a great redemptive experience. Confrontation after confrontation, plague after plague. Egypt’s Pharaoh finally yields to God’s will and lets His people go. They were now free, marching toward the Promised Land, but the march was not easy. As Israel approached the Red Sea, with hills and mountains on either side, with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit, Israel seemed heading toward disaster. There seemed no hope. But God intervened, the sea parted, and the road to freedom lay wide open. Children of Israel once again experienced God’s salvation. That “saving” was not by their works, but by God’s grace.

But what did God do after this mighty act of salvation? He led His people to Mount Sinai, and there He gave them the Ten Commandments. If law implies bondage, as some Christians seem to think, one logical question needs to be raised: Why would God save the children of Israel from one kind of bondage (that of Pharaoh) and place them in another kind of bondage (that of the law)? Makes no sense, does it?

Perhaps we should raise another question: Does law mean “bondage”? Observe the preface to the Ten Commandments that the Lord Himself gives: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2, NIV). God gave His law to a people whom He has saved. A people freed from the bondage of Egypt, thanks to God’s intervening grace, are given a law that will define their future relations with Him. Therefore, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). Having another god would mean forgetting or forsaking the God who saved, and that would be equivalent to a return to bondage. Hence, the reason God gave the law to a saved people is to keep them saved as His children. Begotten of love and grace, God wanted them to stay in close relationship with Him. The “thou shalt not’s” of the Ten Commandments are in the negative because God has already saved His people. They now live in a saved relationship with Him, and to break any of the commandments would place themin a negative relationship with Him—a return to bondage!

While the law has no power to keep someone from being lost, it does help prevent the person from heading back into bondage. God knows that Satan can coax and force, if possible, God’s people into alienation from their Deliverer. The law was and is a hedge set up to help God’s people remember the miracle involved in setting them free from bondage. The “thou shalt not’s” are built on the premise that they have already been “saved”—not something that must be done in order to be saved!

Two characteristics

Two very important characteristics of God’s law need to be borne in mind. As good as the law is, it can be abused. It can be used in such a way as to convey a teaching about God that is not true. Thus God’s law stands as a memorial. A memorial, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, can be used to promote war or to teach the high cost of war.

As a memorial, God’s law does two things. First, while it does not have power in itself to save, it reminds us of the bondage that we can slip into when we disregard the law and lead a life outside of a relationship with God. Second, the law, while reminding us of our powerlessness, also points us in the direction of the One who breaks the cycle of sin and bondage. The law stands as a memorial to the declaration that God, and God alone, saves!

Unfortunately, human nature characteristically forgets how God has led in the past. We become preoccupied with present difficulties and tend to forget how God’s grace has saved. This comes as no surprise to God, for He who created us knows us well and has given us a perpetual reminder of His love and continual care. This perpetual reminder of His grace is within the law itself—the seventh-day Sabbath. It is like a memorial within a memorial—a sign of God’s intervention and deliverance. With this in mind, note Deuteronomy 5:6, 12–15 (NIV): “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. . . . Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest as you do.”

That is the commandment to keep the Sabbath. What rationale does God give for that commandment? Look at verse 15: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

Remember. Therefore. An act of remembrance and an act of obedience are linked in this commandment, with the second flowing from the first. First of all, remember the saving act of God’s deliverance from sin and bondage. Second, keep the Sabbath, which God has given as a memorial of His saving act.

The seventh-day Sabbath portrays God as the Great Deliverer, the Liberator, the Redeemer of those facing temptation and sin. The Sabbath day does not point to our accomplishments. Instead, it points to what God has done. Every week we are to be reminded of God’s willingness to be personally involved with our struggles and our salvation. Every week He wishes us to recall His promises of strength and friendship. Every week we are reminded we are not alone. Every week we are not only reminded that God is alive but that God takes personal interest and acts for us. Thus, Sabbath is not a day of bondage, but a day of joy and jubilation that we worship a God who saves, who frees, and who fellowships with mortals such as we are. That is the message of the Sabbath. He is not only alive, He is willing to set us free.

Memorial of Creation

While the Deuteronomic portrayal points to Sabbath as a memorial of the deliverance and redemption that God accomplished for His people in bondage, the Exodus rendition of the law points to Sabbath as a memorial of another great event of God: Creation. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exod. 20:8–11, NIV).

Thus inspiration links Sabbath not only with deliverance and redemption (Deut. 5:12–15; Exod. 20:8–11; Ezek. 20:12) but also with Creation. The Sabbath, thus, is a memorial of God’s mighty creative power and His redeeming grace. It is a memorial of the past, the present, and the future: creation, salvation, and restoration. The Sabbath reminds us of our real roots—of being created in the image of God, of our fall, but also of a promised restoration. The Sabbath then contains the Advent hope. Inherent within the Sabbath is the anticipation of the personal coming of our Creator and Redeemer to set the world back on its intended course. Everything about the Sabbath represents what God has done, is doing, and will do. In every respect our salvation centers in what He has done for us. Our hopelessness becomes restored to hope, and our brokenness, into wholeness. Hence the prayer of the psalmist takes on additional meaning. “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life. . . .Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (Ps. 119:92–97, NIV).

A memorial of rest and hope

Does the world need to hear this message? Are there cries for understanding? Are there lonely people? Are there people who feel caught in vicious habits, addictions, and temptations? Are there people groups searching for their roots because of a feeling of estrangement? Is there a sense of meaninglessness, doom, and despair?

Undoubtedly yes. And the good news says that we are not left without an answer, for Someone cares. His invitation is to all: “ ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ ” (Matt. 11:28–30).

To take the yoke of Jesus is to be a responsible follower of Him. To abide in Him. To love Him. To obey Him. To take the memorials He has given us seriously. Among the many memorials He has given to us are the law and the Sabbath. To accept them frees us from bondage, and we can celebrate in joy and freedom.

The formula is rather simple. “Come to me” is the first command of Jesus. Come to His cross. Accept His forgiveness. Accept Him as your Redeemer. Once that is done, Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you.” Be My follower. Do what I have outlined for your life. In the words of the Exodus and Deuteronomy passages we have seen earlier, “Remember. . . therefore.” Remember how God has delivered you from bondage. Therefore, keep the Sabbath, obey the law of God.

God’s memorials express His love, His care, and His action. God’s law promises freedom, not bondage. The Sabbath rest means, not a time of inactivity, but a time of reconnection, a time of fulfillment. It is a special moment when the created walk with the Creator, when the tired and worn find peace in the Sustainer, and when the despairing sinner finds comfort in the Redeemer. Hebrews calls this a “Sabbath-rest” (Heb. 4:9).

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Larry H. Evans, D.Min., is the undersecretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

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