Duty or Intent? (Part 8)

Discipleship Series
by Rayola Kelley

As most of you know, before the holidays I was writing a series of articles that would serve as a means to disciple people into the ways of God. Now that the holidays are over, I am going to resume this important series.

One of the biggest challenges we have in Christianity is that we make it a matter of rules and regulations, rather than a lifestyle. In other words, Christianity is a life that is to be walked out through application of God’s truths, and obedience to His Word.

As I consider Christians, I realize that some of them have a lopsided understanding about the Christian life. This out-of-balance perspective has to do with majoring in minors, and downplaying what our real focus must be as believers. Jesus put it best when He used the illustration of straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). People actually miss the whole point of a matter because of the wrong emphasis they put on it. Instead of understanding the intent, purpose or principle behind something, people have simply made it into a religious duty that lacks real substance or meaning. In fact, this is how you kill the intent or spirit of God’s truths, making them dead-letter.

A good example of missing the whole point can be found in the debate surrounding the Sabbath. Have you ever noticed how people who are caught up with this issue get stuck on one day, and it becomes their center focus or issue? Yet, Scripture is clear, observing one particular day will not save a person from the judgment of hell. Rather, salvation comes when a person believes upon the Lord Jesus Christ and walks in obedience to His commands.

However, this conflict and unscriptural emphasis on the Sabbath is not new. It is just an example of how far off people can get from the center of what is important. In fact, the Sabbath was the big issue of Jesus’ day. It was one of the reasons the religious leadership justified their hatred and condemnation of Him.

It is important to understand how we can get off of center by putting the wrong emphasis on a matter. Since the Sabbath causes much conflict, we can actually use it as a good illustration as to how easy it is for people to miss the point, and emphasize something in a wrong light, causing untold confusion for many. As we consider this issue, consider what other subjects can fall into this same category.

The Sabbath is confusing because it is also one of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments pointed to the moral obligation people had towards God and others. In the past I have concluded that the fourth commandment of the Sabbath had to do with the moral responsibility we have towards God. But, after studying the Sabbath, I realize that it is really a moral obligation that was directed at one’s personal responsibility as to maintaining his or her own spiritual well-being. Since it is directed at the betterment of our well-being, I had to conclude that the first three commandments were in regard to our moral responsibility towards God, the fourth commandment of the Sabbath has to do with a personal obligation to ensure a right environment in our spiritual life, and the last six commandments were in relationship to our moral responsibility towards others.

Jesus confirmed that the Sabbath was made for the benefit of man, and that He was the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-12). In other words, the Sabbath was subject to Him, not the other way around. It is also interesting to note, that when it came to the commandments that Jesus emphasized that we are to  observe, the commandment regarding the Sabbath was not mentioned. (See Matthew 19:17-19.)

It is important to realize that the Law of God had a purpose. The main purpose was to show man that he was a sinner or transgressor against the Law, and of his need for Jesus to save him (Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:24). The Law was made up of testimonies (serve as witnesses), statutes (ordinances or rituals), precepts (doctrines), judgments (required discernment and separation to ensure justice or righteousness), and commandments (moral obligations). In some cases, the requirements in God’s Law were applied to one or more category. For example, the Sabbath was both a commandment (moral obligation) and a statute (ordinance or ritual) because it involved a regular ceremonial practice on the part of the people.

This brings us to a very important question: are Christians required to keep this particular commandment and ordinance? The only way I can answer this question is yes and no. In other words, as His people we must keep the principle of the commandment, but we are not required to keep the ordinance of it. Principle points to the intent of the Sabbath, which as we will see, points to an actual place of rest, while ordinance points to a duty to recognize a certain day in which we are to rest.

In order to properly understand how this issue affects our lives, we must study the Sabbath from the premise of principle in order to bring proper balance to it as a practice or ordinance. To start from the right premise, we first must come to an understanding of the principle of the Sabbath. To do this, we must go back to the very beginning of creation. God spent six days creating the world. On the seventh day He rested or ceased from all work. In other words, He came to a complete place of rest. Keep in mind that He rested from all work in order to enjoy the satisfying fruit of His labor. He said of it that it was good or delightful and pleasurable to Him. He also ceased from all work because it was finished or brought to completion; therefore, it was a time to be refreshed. For God to set something apart for His pleasure or delight is the same as sanctifying it to Himself. He actually distinguished it because it stood separate from all the other days that were marked by His activities and work surrounding creation (Genesis 1:31-2:3).

God’s example establishes the principle of the Sabbath. It points to resting in terms of enjoying, recognizing or partaking of the fruits of our labors, or ceasing from all laboring because it has been completed, marking the time for being refreshed in those labors.

Therefore, the spiritual principle of the Sabbath for His people comes down to enjoying, recognizing and partaking of the life that God is bringing forth. In order to enjoy such a life as His people, we must cease from laboring with our daily tasks and responsibilities. To cease from such work in order to rest in the bountiful, satisfying blessings that God has brought forth is to set apart, sanctify or distinguish a day in which our only focus is to come into a place of rest before our loving Creator. Again, the principle points to coming into a place of rest by sanctifying or setting a day apart to do so. Therefore, the principle of rest points to the fact that any day can be a Sabbath day or a day of rest.

This now brings us to the commandment and ordinance of the Sabbath. It is important to point out that before God commanded the Jewish people to observe the practice of the Sabbath, the principle of it was already in place.

It is also important to establish the foundation for the ceremonial practice of the Sabbath. The Hebrews had been in slavery to Egypt for over four centuries. Their bondage had become so great that they cried out to God. Through Moses, God delivered them out of the bondage of Egypt. Keep in mind, when people are in bondage, they have no freedom to worship God. No doubt, in their slavery, the Jewish people had no days off to rest or regard their spiritual heritage or identity as a people.

Hence enters the covenant of the Law in which the practice of the Sabbath was clearly outlined. God established a Law for the people of Israel with the intent of setting them apart from the influence and practices of pagan nations. However, one of the principles they had to learn after being enslaved to the idolatrous and pagan ways of Egypt was how to come into a place of true rest before their God, so they could worship Him and enjoy the life He was ordaining for them.

Exodus 16:23-30 clearly shows us that observing the seventh day as the Sabbath was not commanded or ordained as a practice until it was specifically given to Israel after their deliverance out of Egypt. We are told in Deuteronomy 5:14-15 that the children of Israel were to remember the Sabbath as a means to remind them that they were slaves in Egypt. The word “remember” points to the seventh day serving as a memorial to the children of Israel concerning their past slavery. The reason for this reminder was to ensure that they would maintain their life of worship and service to Jehovah God. If they observed His holy Law, they would ensure their spiritual liberty, as well as the integrity of worship and service to the one true God of heaven.

Clearly, the practice of the Sabbath was to remind the children of Israel of their past slavery in order for them to come into a place of rest to enjoy the rich life they had in God. Therefore, the seventh day was to serve as a sign for each following generation of the people of Israel that the Lord had not only sanctified a day of rest, but that He also set them apart as a people for His purpose (Exodus 31:13).

Like circumcision, the Sabbath was to serve as a visible sign for the people of Israel. They were to keep the Sabbath to remind them of who they were, and what their purpose was in the midst of this world. They were to stand separate as a special people that belonged to Jehovah God.

This brings us up to date. Someone has put forth a challenge to prove the Sabbath is no longer the seventh day or Saturday. First of all, we assume the seventh day to be Saturday according to the Roman calendar, but does it truly correspond with God’s seventh day? Does the seventh day make the Sabbath or does the intent of the Sabbath set the seventh day apart? In other words, what are we truly recognizing when observing the Sabbath, the day or the practice? There is a difference. If we strictly recognize the day, it becomes a duty, but if we approach the seventh day with the intent of observing the Sabbath, we will ensure the integrity of it. Keep in mind, the Sabbath points to an event or a place of rest, while the seventh day was simply the day that was set apart by God to observe the rest. Therefore, we must put a distinction between the practice and the day. To prove a point, the Jewish celebrations were marked by a Sabbath or a day of rest. These days of remembrance or celebration did not always fall on the seventh day. This is why you read this in Colossians 2:16: “Let no man, therefore, judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days.” Notice that the Sabbath days are plural, not singular. Here it proves any day can be designated as a day of rest if the principle is clearly in place.

As Christians, are we to observe the Sabbath? Yes, we are to observe the principle of the Sabbath to ensure our own spiritual well-being. In other words, we are to come into a place of rest before the Lord to honor, worship, meditate upon, and clearly consider Him. Here is the next question. Must we observe Saturday as our Sabbath? The answer is no.

First of all, observing the Sabbath on the seventh day was a specific sign for the children of Israel to keep before them. I don’t know about you, but I am a Gentile, and my relatives were not held in bondage to Egypt. Granted, I was a captive to sin, but the sign that identifies my liberty is not one specific day, but that of a changed life in Christ.

Secondly, observing the Sabbath on the seventh day was part of the ceremonial Law of the old covenant. In other words it was an ordinance, ritual or duty. The ceremonial part of the Law was blotted out by an establishment of a new covenant (Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 8:6-13). The reason for the rituals being blotted out was because they were to serve as a shadow of another completed work, the work of redemption. This work was completed on the cross. Jesus even confirmed this when He stated: “It is finished” (John 19:30). Once the work of redemption was completed, the rest that was made available to those who embraced His redemption was far more excellent than the actual practice of the Sabbath.

Jesus is the fulfillment and completion of the intent or principle of the Law. Fulfilling the intent of the Law establishes those believers who are hid in Him in righteousness before God(Colossians 3:3). Romans 10:4 confirms this: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” At the end of the Law is Jesus. This brings us to the more excellent rest for the Christian. It is not a day, but rather the actual Person of Jesus that we can now find our real rest in. He stated in Matthew 11:28-29: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” (Emphasis added.)

As you can see, the seventh day was ordained to mark a day of rest for Israel, but Jesus serves as our place of rest. Our rest is part of a new, everlasting covenant that is far more excellent than the old. The new covenant reminds us that ceremonial practices will not distinguish us. However, as Christians we must become identified with Jesus in every way. Jesus was in the grave on the Sabbath, but arose on the eighth day, the first day of the week. Since Christians were to be identified to the new covenant, the first believers met on the first day of the week to commemorate, celebrate and worship their God (John 20:19; 20:26; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2).

Christians must learn how to discern between that which demands lifeless duty and that which requires intent in order to ensure life and integrity in the matters of God. The great push for many is to come under the burdens produced by the lifeless duty of religion. Lifeless religion cannot produce life, but instead, produces only self-righteousness and despair, for such duty becomes too heavy a burden to bear.

I don’t know about you, but I do not want to settle for the shadows, when I can possess what is real. As a disciple of Jesus, we follow Him into a new life. In order to follow Him, we must beware of the endless detours that are constantly being presented in the name of religion and truth.

Next month, I will be sharing with you what brings balance between the intent of the Law and the Christian life.  Meanwhile, heed the Apostle Paul’s warning in Galatians 5:1: “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty with which Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”