Kevin Antlitz is a Ministry Fellow with Christian Union on the campus of Princeton University. He holds an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. You can read more from him at his blog, The Transcendentalish or at Transpositions, the online journal of the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts at St. Andrews University.
We live in a culture built on the shaky foundation of a terrible and convincing lie: influence, affluence and notoriety are the things that constitute the “good life.” We are convinced that these things will make us happy and are willing to sacrifice nearly anything to acquire them.
In his book Faith in the Centre, Professor Paul Fiddes of Oxford University suggests that one of the tasks of Christians in every generation is to “read the style” of their culture, that we might shine the light of the gospel into the dark places. The predominant spirit of American culture, he says, is one of market forces. We assign value and success, in large part, according to what we can consume and produce.
Christians aren’t immune to this distorted value system. We breathe the same smoggy air. It is often difficult to discern which “C” word most defines us: Christian or capitalist. Our native environment is a broken system geared towards a hierarchy of performance fueled by competition. And, we’ve bought into the meritocracy . . . at the expense of our souls.
But the gospel offers us a means of resistance against the potentially soul crushing nature of a world that runs on competition. One of the reasons why the gospel is good news is because it offers us rest. The gospel gives us rest from having to prove ourselves, it gives us rest from having to define ourselves based on our accomplishments, and it gives us rest from evaluating ourselves based on our performance and production.
The gospel offers us the gift of Sabbath rest.
The Sabbath is Grace
I think many of us misunderstand the importance of Sabbath both in the biblical narrative and in our own lives – we associate Sabbath keeping with Old Testament Law and New Testament legalism, instead of grace. Consequently, we miss the great gift of Sabbath rest.
There’s no denying that Sabbath observance was one of the primary identity markers of ancient Israel and that Jesus often criticized how some of the Jews observed the Sabbath in the Gospels. There are even a few instances in Paul’s letters where he appears quite critical of things associated with the Sabbath (see Col 2:16, Rom 14:5, Gal 4:10).
But when Jesus says, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” he is not abolishing a grace-given law but rather, criticizing the Pharisees’ legalistic observance of it (Mk 2:27). Jesus’ point here is that the Sabbath serves us, not us the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not something we have to do to be worthy of redemption; it’s what we get to do after we’ve been redeemed. And this logic of the Sabbath isn’t new to the New Testament; we see it in Old Testament, too.
The Ten Commandments are so often viewed as a burdensome list of do’s and don’ts, but that’s not how ancient Israel received them. This is especially true of the fourth commandment. In Deuteronomy, God commands his people to work six days and set apart the seventh day as a Sabbath where they shall not do any work. In other words, God is telling former slaves who worked around the clock that they get a day off!
Note the connection between redemption from slavery in the Exodus event and the Sabbath:
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. Deuteronomy 20:15
Sabbath is not a burdensome command. It is a gift. It is a reminder of redemption. It is good news. When we keep Sabbath, we remember we are slaves no longer. We are redeemed. Sabbath is a response to redemption. It provides the opportunity to choose freedom and not slavery. When we receive the gift of the Sabbath by faith and practice rest, we trust God. We choose freedom in Him over enslavement to a culture of competition. Practicing the Sabbath and regularly enjoying the rest of God is one way of putting off the soul-corroding rhythms of our culture.
The Sabbath is a Shadow of Future Rest
While the Sabbath is a gift we can partake in now, it’s only a shadow of what is to come in eternity with God. The Sabbath has always pointed beyond itself to the ultimate rest we will enjoy in the new heavens and the new earth (Col 2:16-17). The faithful substance of the Sabbath indeed belongs to Christ, the guarantor of the promised rest not yet in our possession. That’s why the author of Hebrews can write there still remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God (Heb 4:9). Our eternal rest has not been fulfilled but awaits us in the future, and we are exhorted to strive to enter that rest (Heb 4:11). Therefore, practicing Sabbath rest week in and week out is one way we can to live a faithful life of obedience to God, partaking by faith in a picture of His eternal goodness.