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Leading Question: How does one experience the Sabbath as a gift instead of a test?

I am intrigued by the fact that a lesson on “Sabbath” is included in this series on “Education.” Maybe because university life is so intense that the editor decided that it would be good to focus on the blessing of the sabbath. I recall a story told me by a colleague in the English Department at Walla Walla University.

When she was in graduate school she had been with a group of fellow graduate students on Friday afternoon. As sundown approached, she began to put her books away. Her colleagues were puzzled and intrigued? Why? They asked. “It’s my religion,” she said. I have been given a 24-hour relief from constant work. It is a day of rest, a Sabbath, to use the biblical word.”

They were intrigued, amazed, and a bit envious!

I almost hear an echo of Moses’ comment about the blessing of God’s law in general:

Deut. 4:5-8 (NRSV): See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

Israel’s neighbors were impressed by the laws had given to his people. So, too, if we can show that the Sabbath is a blessing, not just a test, others will be attracted by what they see. But when I see an email banner announcement declaring, “The Sabbath Is Not Important,” I know that it reflects an experience with the Sabbath as test. I don’t see how the Sabbath can be experienced as a gift when it is first of all a test.

So in this lesson, we will review some highlights about the Sabbath that can help us in experiencing and living the character of God and a gracious and grace-full creator who wants to see his children rejoice in his gifts

1. A Sabbath blessing and an example, but no Sabbath command:

Gen. 2:1-3 (NRSV): Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Question: When God introduces the Sabbath in Genesis 2, there is no command, only the divine blessing and the divine example. How might that shape our understanding of the Sabbath?

2. The Manna: Rediscovering the Sabbath.

Exodus 16:27-30 (NRSV): 27 On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. 28 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? 29 See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.

Question: How did the miracle of the Sabbath prepare the people for the Sinai decalogue?

3. Two versions of the Sinai Decalogue: Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Exodus 20:8-11 (NRSV): 8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Deut. 5:12-15 (NRSV): 12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 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.

Question: What are the major differences between the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions of the law and what is the significance of those differences?

Comment: The Exodus version of the Decalogue celebrates creation. The Deuteronomy version celebrates redemption from slavery. One line in Deuteronomy is particularly noteworthy: “that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” One-time British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan is reputed to have said that the Deuteronomic law is “the first and greatest worker protection act in History.” [Chris Wright, “Deuteronomic Depression,” Themelios 19:2 (January 1994, p. 3]

4. Calling the Sabbath a Delight.

Isaiah 58:13-14 (NRSV):

13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Question: Does this passage in Isaiah tell us how to make the Sabbath a delight? The earlier verses in the chapter call Israel to social justice. Is that part of the delight?

5. The Sabbath was made for human beings.

Mark 2: 27-28 (NRSV) 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Question: Jesus’ attitude toward the Sabbath was focused more on human need than on human rules on how to keep the Sabbath. What benefits do “rules” have in keeping the Sabbath?

A radical suggestion: A New Testament scholar once noted to me that the phrase “son of man” is simply the ordinary Aramaic word for man/human being. Therefore, the line could be translated: “the human being is lord of the Sabbath.” That interpretation seems to be lurking in Jesus’ attitude. But of the 51 English translations found on Bible Gateway, none is brave enough to give that translation. The Common English Bible may be approaching that position with its translation: “This is why the Human One is lord even over the Sabbath.”

6. The Sabbath as a time for community.

The official study guide brings together several passages from the book of Acts that show how the apostles worshiped with the believers on Sabbath (Acts 13:14-45; Acts 16:13-14; Acts 17:1-5; Acts 18:4.

Question: In our modern secular world, how can the Sabbath be made a time for community?

The article which follows, explores further the tension between Sabbath as test and Sabbath as gift:

The Sabbath and Your Neighbor
By Alden Thompson (Adventist Today, 25.4, 2017.10.20).

When asked about the greatest commandment in the law, Jesus named two: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40, NRSV).

Surprisingly, in Jesus’ more succinct summary of his message, he focused on the second command, ignoring the first: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Paul does the same: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:14). In a world where the human (secular) and the divine (sacred) are so easily separated, Jesus begins to show us how to bring the two together. In the parable of the sheep and goats (Matt. 25:31-46), for example, even the saintly sheep are surprised when the king links their fate to kindly actions done for human beings, not to service done directly for God.

In 1898, Ellen White makes the unifying model even more explicit: “Love to man is the earthward manifestation of the love of God. It was to implant this love, to make us children of one family, that the King of glory became one with us. And when His parting words are fulfilled, ‘Love one another, as I have loved you’ (John 15:12); when we love the world as He has loved it, then for us His mission is accomplished. We are fitted for heaven; for we have heaven in our hearts.” [Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1898), p. 641. According to the EGW Writings database, only two of her later compilations cite these striking lines: God’s Amazing Grace (1973) and Our Father Cares (1991).]

Remarkably, in her early years, Ellen White saw the secular and the sacred as separate and competing forces. That the transition was complete by 1898 is indicated by her two versions of Jesus’ cryptic response to his mother at the wedding at Cana, when he said, “O woman, what have you to do with me?” (John 2:4, RSV):

1877: “In rebuking his mother, Jesus also rebuked a large class who have an idolatrous love for their family, and allow the ties of relationship to draw them from the service of God. Human love is a sacred attribute; but should not be allowed to mar our religious experience, or draw our hearts from God.” [White, The Spirit of Prophecy, Vol. 2, (Battle Creek, MI: SDA Pub. Assoc., 1877), p. 101.]

1898: “This answer, abrupt as it seems to us, expressed no coldness or discourtesy. The Saviour’s form of address to His mother was in accordance with Oriental custom. It was used toward persons to whom it was desired to show respect.” [The Desire of Ages, p. 146.]

Are both statements “inspired”? Partial answers come from Ellen White herself. First, she affirmed that God’s messengers were inspired, not their words:

“The Bible is written by inspired men, but it is not God’s mode of thought and expression. It is that of humanity. God, as a writer, is not represented. Men will often say such an expression is not like God. But God has not put Himself in words, in logic, in rhetoric, on trial in the Bible. The writers of the Bible were God’s penmen, not His pen. Look at the different writers.

“It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired.” [ Ms 24, 1886, Selected Messages, Bk. 1 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1958), p. 21.]

Second, she said that the Bible writers “differed widely in rank and occupation, and in mental and spiritual endowments” [White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1911), p. vi.] —yes, even in “spiritual endowments”! Even Paul was puzzled by the differing needs at Corinth. “What would you prefer?” he asked. “Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21).

All of that is prelude to the topic of this column: how to share the Sabbath with our neighbors. But wait: Is the Sabbath a gift or a test? Should we blaze a path with a “stick” or “with love in a spirit of gentleness”? Let’s look at several partial answers.

From Stick to the Spirit of Gentleness: Some Patterns. Though I often puzzle over the many ways that Scripture and daily life illustrate the tension between the stick and gentle love, several overarching patterns seem clear:

1. From fallen Adam to perfect Jesus. Scripture suggests that the entry of sin thoroughly twisted human understanding of authority. From a gentle God walking in the garden to a bloodthirsty ogre demanding the firstborn son is an astonishing change. But God does not leave it at that. He daringly meets sinners on their own ground, risking all manner of misunderstandings to lead them back to him. It is a pilgrimage from the fear of God’s power to joy in his reassuring love. But it takes time.

2. From the terrors of Sinai, and a dangerous God who kills, to the splendors of Golgotha and a still-dangerous God who dies. This pattern is a subset of the first, but it illustrates more specifically how God will use fear as a stepping stone to a life without fear. God so terrified Israel that the people begged Moses for relief: “If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die” (Deut. 5:28). But God was pleased with their fear, telling Moses: “They are right in all that they have spoken. If only they had such a mind as this, to fear me and to keep all my commandments always, so that it might go well with them and with their children forever!” (verses 28-29). A law written on the heart? Not yet. But it was a first step. Reaching the goal would take time.

3. From 2-year-old defiance to adult confidence. Human growth and development reaches the ideal when the good is fully internalized, becoming as natural as walking, swimming, or riding a bike. But it takes time. And parents, like God, will use a stick as well as gentle love—and everything in between—to make it happen.

4. From fear and sectarian belligerence to gentle love. If you are afraid of God, you will share that fear when you share your faith. In Ellen White’s early years, she had feared that God could not govern the world without the threat of an eternal hell. Later she wrote about the day when her mother began studying the possibility that the soul was mortal: “Why, mother!” cried I, in astonishment, “this is strange talk for you! If you believe this strange theory, do not let any one know of it; for I fear that sinners would gather security from this belief, and never desire to seek the Lord.” [White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1968), p. 39. The first edition of the Testimonies to include Ellen White’s autobiography was published in 1885, but the memory of her conversation with her mother first appeared in The Signs of the Times, March 9, 1876.]

When I first read that statement, I was startled because I was already familiar with her comments on hell in The Great Controversy: “The errors of popular theology have driven many a soul to skepticism who might otherwise have been a believer in the Scriptures. It is impossible for him to accept doctrines which outrage his sense of justice, mercy, and benevolence; and since these are represented as the teaching of the Bible, he refuses to receive it as the word of God.” [White, The Great Controversy, p. 525.]

Over time, God gradually led Ellen White to complete the 180-degree turn, from fearing that God could not be God without hell to seeing hell as one of Satan’s most deadly weapons. The fact that Ellen White’s Adventism was a confrontational, countercultural movement – sociologists call it a sect – no doubt helped shape her life experience. From countercultural roots, sectarian movements often become culture-accepting, sometimes losing their original fiery identity completely. Because that possibility often frightens devout conservatives, they shy away from “change” and “diversity.”

We need to make peace with both change and diversity so that we can grasp the Sabbath as a gift we share with joy, rather than a test that comes with threats and warnings.

The Sabbath: From Strident Warning to Gentle Gift. Recognizing the biblical pattern that moves from fear to joy can help us make peace with a similar pattern in the writings and experience of Ellen White. With specific reference to the Sabbath, here are two of her quotations, a strident one from 1861 and a gentle one from 1887:

1861: “The name Seventh-day Adventist is a standing rebuke to the Protestant world. Here is the line of distinction between the worshipers of God and those who worship the beast and receive his mark. The great conflict is between the commandments of God and the requirements of the beast. It is because the saints are keeping all ten of the commandments that the dragon makes war upon them. …

“The name Seventh-day Adventist carries the true features of our faith in front, and will convict the inquiring mind. Like an arrow from the Lord’s quiver, it will wound the transgressor of God’s law, and will lead to repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” [White, Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 1, pp. 223-224.]

1887: “In laboring in a new field, do not think it your duty to say at once to the people, We are Seventh-day Adventists; we believe that the seventh day is the Sabbath; we believe in the non-immortality of the soul. This would often erect a formidable barrier between you and those you wish to reach. Speak to them, as you have opportunity, upon points of doctrine on which you can agree. Dwell on the necessity of practical godliness. Give them evidence that you are a Christian, desiring peace, and that you love their souls. Let them see that you are conscientious. Thus you will gain their confidence; and there will be time enough for doctrines. Let the heart be won, the soil prepared, and then sow the seed, presenting in love the truth as it is in Jesus.” [White, Gospel Workers (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1915), p. 119.]

While I cringe at some of the methods that have been (and at times still are) used for sharing the Sabbath, I pray that the Lord will bless those methods to his glory and continue to lead us toward the non-confrontational ideal. I take comfort in the fact that the Bible is full of examples where God used rigorous methods to nudge his people. Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22).

In the light of God’s revelation in Christ, we can see that in a healthy marriage relationship, words like “test,” “requirement,” “command,” and “demand” never come to mind. That’s the goal for our relationship with God, too. Jeremiah’s description of the new covenant says it all: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34).

Still, sin has so distorted our thinking that these “testing” words easily slip in where they don’t really belong. Originally it was not so. Ellen White describes how “law” was a foreign concept in heaven until Lucifer rebelled: “In heaven, service is not rendered in the spirit of legality. When Satan rebelled against the law of Jehovah, the thought that there was a law came to the angels almost as an awakening to something unthought of.” [White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1896), p. 109.]

Is the Sabbath a test? Of course – just as every aspect of every relationship in life is a “test.” But we can be oblivious to the test. “Demand,” “command,” and “test” all vanish when our lives are shaped by the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). And when Paul adds, “There is no law against such things,” we could be seriously playful and remind him that there is no law in favor of such things, either, for law has become “something unthought of,” to borrow Ellen White’s phrase. Our keeping and sharing of the Sabbath could thrive in such a world.

If Adventism is seen to be embodied by those strident defenders of an attack-oriented community, then the experience of buoyant, non-Adventist Christians can look very attractive indeed. In 1891 Ellen White referred to those who are “denunciatory, resentful, exacting” in their treatment of others as being called of God to be “more kind, more loving and lovable, less critical and suspicious.” [White, “The Spirit of a Christian,” Review and Herald, Feb. 24, 1891.] She had become convinced that the “strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian.” [ White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1905), p. 470.]

I suspect that many former Adventists, longing for the assurance of God’s love, have abandoned the beautiful gift of the Sabbath because it felt like a test rather than a gift. Compassion, love, and assurance are all at risk in the face of constant testing. So let’s make the transition that Ellen White herself made and share the Sabbath with our neighbors as a gift from God. By his grace, the idea of “test” will never even come to mind.

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