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Relevant Biblical Passages: Exod. 31:12-16

Covenant Sign. In Exodus 31:12-16, the Sabbath is explicitly identified as a “sign” that God makes his people holy. It is significant that this sign is embedded in the decalogue. The specific focus here is on this crucial passage. The following points are worth exploring;

    1. Sabbath as a sign that the Lord sanctifies His people (vs. 13)
    2. Sabbath as a sign that the Lord made heaven and earth in six days and rested and was refreshed (vs. 17)
    3. The death penalty for profaning the Sabbath, i.e. no work (vs. 14-15)
    4. Perpetual covenant, a sign forever (vs. 16-17)

Old Testament and New Testament views on the Sabbath compared. In Numbers 15:32-36, God commands that a man be stoned for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. But Jesus, who claimed the God of the Old Testament as His, and indeed was understood by his Jewish detractors as making the blasphemous claim of actually being the God of the Old Testament (cf. John 8:48-59), commanded a man to pick up his bed and carry it on the Sabbath (John 5:8). How can one see both commands as coming from the same God? And how do these contrasting commands apply to us in our day? How do we make the Sabbath for man instead of man for the Sabbath? (Mark 2:27-28). And how can that still be a sign of the covenant for Christians?

It is worth noting that all the commands in the decalogue with the exception of the 10th (Don’t covet) are enforced with the death penalty in the additional Mosaic legislation which God gave to Moses. For a more complete discussion of a “radical divine accommodation” which meets violent people with violent methods in order to help them grow, see Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Pacesetters, 2000), especially chapters 2 to 4: “Behold it was very good – and then it all turned sour”; “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?”; and “Strange people need strange laws.” For an exposition of Jesus’ Sabbath miracles, see John Brunt, Day for Healing (Review and Herald, 1981).

There are numerous indications in Scripture that the decalogue is in a category by itself in Scripture, i.e. to be seen as more enduring than the additional Mosaic legislation. Perhaps most significant in that respect is Deuteronomy 4:13-14 which specifically labels the decalogue as “covenant” and sharply distinguishes it from the “statutes and ordinances” given to Moses. The following list summarizes the more important ways in which the decalogue, and hence the Sabbath are seen as very important:

    1. Spoken to all the people (Ex. 20:1, 19), not mediated through Moses (Ex. 20:22).
    2. Written in stone by the finger of God (Ex. 24:12; 31:18; 32:15-16; 34:1; Deut. 4:13; 10:1-5), rather than in a book by the hand of Moses (Deut. 31:24-26).
    3. Described as “covenant,” over against the “statutes and ordinances” (Deut. 4:13-14).
    4. Placed within the ark (Ex. 24:16; Deut. 10:5); the other laws were placed in a book beside the ark (Deut. 31:24-26).
    5. Specifically mentioned as “ten” commands (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4).
    6. “Apodictic” law (command form) with no penalties attached, instead of “casuistic” law (“if” cases) with variable penalties.
    7. Specifically excerpted in several NT contexts (Matt. 19:16-21; Mark 10:17-21; Luke 18:18-22; Romans 13:8-10; James 2:8-12).

The following article, originally published in the North Pacific Union Conference Gleaner (March 17, 1999), calls attention to the fact that the ten commandments are still very much a factor in today’s Christian world.

The Ten Commandments Make a Comeback
By Alden Thompson

When it comes to the ten commandments, I’ll admit a bias. I like them — about what you’d expect from an incurable Adventist.

Yet funny things happen when our likes, passions, or commitments put us out of step with those around us. Evangelistic zeal can turn into embarrassed private preference. We become shy or defensive, or even slip into denial. I get amazed guffaws, for example, from up-to-date computer buffs when they discover I’m still using WordPerfect 5.1. Go ahead and laugh, I murmur. And I laugh with them — mostly. But part of me feels wounded. So I hide my 5.1 preference and hope my computer friends don’t find out.

The same psychology is at work in religious matters. And it can go beyond soft-pedaling to outright rejection. A change of scenery transformed Peter from a sword-wielding defender into a cringing denier.

I’ve seen something like that happening among Adventists when it comes to the Sabbath and the ten commandments. We worry that the intensity of our commitment has led us to overstate the case. So we sometimes back off and even among ourselves give the impression that Jesus’ two great commands (love for God, love for others) are really more defensible than the ten. Given a change of scenery at a volatile moment, the Sabbath (and the ten?) can disappear.

Scripture builds a solid case for the enduring nature of the decalogue: spoken by God to the people, not just to Moses; written in stone, not in a book, and by God’s own finger not just by Moses; placed inside the ark instead of beside it. That’s just for starters.

All that is perfectly clear to someone who believes in the Sabbath — but is overlooked or explained away by those devout people who keep another day or no day at all. The result? While some of us are too shy, others among us are too belligerent in defending decalogue and Sabbath. Thus we get the worst of both worlds.

But the decalogue is making a comeback these days. Believers of every shape and flavor are coming out in its defense. We should listen carefully to unhappy former Adventists who are mounting fresh attacks against Sabbath and law. But let’s rejoice and be grateful for new friends.

We can start with the secular press and its willingness to headline Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s book, The Ten Commandments. It’s a best-seller by Harper and has received top billing from Book of the Month Club. Schlesinger, a convert to Orthodox Judaism, can be expected to defend the decalogue. But no one would accuse Harper or BOMC of being too religious. Still, their secular orientation hasn’t kept them from cashing in on a popular and hard-hitting defense of the decalogue. Blessings on them.

Also on the secular front, the Adventist Review (Feb. 19, 1998) noted that the December 1997 issue of Self magazine featured the ten commandments. Well-known writers addressed the question of how the commands would fare under “modern scrutiny.” In that context Jewish novelist Cynthia Ozick spoke warmly of the Sabbath.

What about Christians? Let’s not forget Pope John Paul II. His 1998 apostolic letter, Dies Domini, mounts a vigorous defense of Sunday-keeping. Adventists have good reasons to be uncomfortable with his conclusions. But what’s intriguing is that he builds his case for Sabbath from Scripture, arguing that Sabbath-keeping is rooted in the ten commandments. In other words, instead of emphasizing the traditional Catholic argument that the church can change the day, he adopts the old Protestant view that Sunday is the Christian way of honoring the Sabbath of the decalogue. Who knows what might happen if the Pope keeps reading his Bible.

As for Protestants, for several years now they’ve done some of the best writing on the meaning and importance of the Sabbath. Eerdmans published Marva Dawn’s book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly (1989). Christianity Today ran Eugene Peterson’s “Confessions of a Former Sabbath Breaker” (Sept. 2, 1988) and “The Good-for-Nothing Sabbath” (April 4, 1994). Admittedly, a secular world makes it hard to build a Sabbath out of a day which the Lord has not blessed. But the deep yearning for a meaningful Sabbath is worth noting.

Even the “liberal” Christian Century has gotten into the act. A two-page feature by James Wall (Nov. 6, 1996) discussed Krystof Kieslowski’s ten-part film series, “The Decalogue,” describing its unexpected popularity at the “thoroughly secular” Denver Film Festival. Wall entitles his feature “Immutable Truths” and speaks of “the absolute certainty of the commandments.”

Perhaps most startling of all is the way that evangelical Protestants are also speaking warmly of the decalogue. Crossings Book Club featured Ron Mehl’s The Ten (der) Commandments (Multnomah, 1998). The dust-jacket quotes Mehl: “The ten commandments are one of the most powerful examples of God’s love in all of Scripture.”

That sounds like the title of a book I’m reading right now, David Wheddle’s, The Law As Gospel (Scarecrow, 1985). It also echoes Moses’ enthusiasm for the law, roughly paraphrased, “Who else has a God like ours and a law like this?” (Deut. 4:5-8).

So let’s not be shy. The decalogue is good stuff. And we’re not doing a solo. The whole congregation may not be singing our tune. But we do belong to a fairly significant choir.

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