One of the best opportunities about teaching the law to students here at Legacy Institute has been the help it has given me in better understanding the commandments of God and how they fit into a large scheme. Though I have always read seriously, preparing courses on the laws has given me a better understanding of the relationship of some of the Bible’s more obscure (or less often obeyed) commands with those laws that I am culturally very familiar with, with intriguing implications.
As a lifetime member of the Church of God, the Sabbath has always been a huge deal as long as I can remember. As a teenager, it was my fidelity to the Sabbath (and that of my family) that led us to leave an apostate organization that had gone rogue. Likewise, the Sabbath and fidelity to it has largely become a litmus test for those who want to consider themselves to be more righteous for others in a variety of ways. Suffice to say, without being too rude, that despite the fact that the Sabbath is important to me and to many people that I know, the larger aspects of the Sabbath and its involvement in our lives are often poorly understood.
When I started seeing just how important certain aspects of the Sabbath were in the Bible, and how little I have heard such aspects preached or discussed, despite my own extensive familiarity with discussions of the Sabbath day, it struck me that perhaps it might be necessary for me to write about such matters myself from one Sabbath-keeper to another. The implications of the Sabbath for our behavior ought to be tremendous, but sadly we have thought little or nothing as a culture about the political and economic implications of the Sabbath for our own worldviews and behavior, and therefore have failed to understand what the Sabbath is really all about. It not not to be so.
For example, today in my OT survey course, I reviewed Deuteronomy 15 and 16 (at least most of chapter 16), both of which are strongly connected to the Sabbath command. Deuteronomy 16:14-16 are extremely familiar, to the point of being cliche, to Church of God members about how we are to enjoy the Feast of Tabernacles. But how many people actually practice the habit of going up three times a year from their homes to a central place where God has set His name to practice the three missionary feasts as commanded by scripture. Not many. How many people connect the law of the firstborn in Deuteronomy 15:19-23 with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ or the “feast of the firstfruits” that marks the first day of the Feast of Weeks, and the time in which Jesus Christ served as our “wave sheaf” offering to God? Not many.
On a larger scale, Deuteronomy 15:1-18 connects very strongly with Leviticus 25, a Sabbath chapter that reflects on the Sabbath year, the Jubilee, laws requiring generosity to the poor, laws forbidding interest to the poor and require a release of debts every seven years, as well as regulate the condition of “bondservants” under biblical law. How many of us reflect on such laws or apply them to our own conditions? I suspect the answer is not many. Do we let our lands rest every seven years? Do we forgive the debts of our brethren as we are commanded to do? Do we harden our hearts against the poor among our fellowships by maligning them as lazy or by (falsely) claiming that it is the responsibility of government and not ourselves to handle such matters? These are not only matters of “Old Testament” law, but are matters of striking importance for Christians and their eternal reward (or lack thereof, see, for example, Matthew 25:31-46). These are all intricately related to the Sabbath.
And why is this so? Deuteronomy 5:15 connects the commandment to keep the Sabbath, not only for ourselves, but for our families, our servants, our animals, and even the foreigners who are within our towns and cities, because just as God freed Israel from slavery (and just as God frees believers from being enslaved to sin), we are to free others from their burdens and obligations to us, and allow them to rest. The command to let the land rest and forgive debts every seven years while remaining generous is a reflection of the connection between the Sabbath and freedom.
Over fifteen years ago the apostates of the Worldwide Church of God claimed that the Sabbath did not have to be kept anymore because it was a burden. To our shame, our own practice and preaching of the Sabbath God were so ignorant of the implications of the Sabbath on freedom, not only for ourselves but for our wives, waitresses at restaurants, employees, and so on, that tens of thousands of people actually believed that the Sabbath was a burden instead of a gift of liberty not only for ourselves but all of those whom we have influence over. Had we understood the Sabbath even close to fully ourselves, and its implications on our generosity to the poor (itself a heavily political question) as well as to our own generosity of spirit and forgiveness of others, to free people from their emotional and mental burdens as well as their physical ones, then it should not have been possible to mistake the freedom of the Sabbath for a burden.
At the very least, those who rejected such obvious and fallacious attacks on God’s law should have reflected as to why God commanded the Sabbath to be observed by all. We who glory in being released from our chains, how can we not be sensitive to the fact that God commands us to release the chains and undo the burdens of all we have influence over? Freedom is not a gift for us to enjoy for ourselves alone, but a gift to be shared to the whole world. Why is that so difficult to understand and to apply?
When I think about the most hostile enemies of the Sabbath, I reflect that they understand very well the connection between the Sabbath and liberty, and hate it. Let us consider the example of the neo-Confederate “Theonomists” like Gary North and Gary DeMar and their associates. These people, who claim to support and believe in the law of God and its continuing applicability for Christians, on account (correctly) of Matthew 5:17-20, are virulently hostile against the Sabbath. They don’t even believe that strict Sunday keeping is necessary, because of how much it hurts the economic interests of the wealthy elites (whom they support and aspire to be). Their adoption of von Mises’ Austrian Economics has led them to view the weekly Sabbath, annual Sabbath, Holy Days, Jubilee Year, forbidding of interest on loans, command to show generosity to the poor, and command to free bondservants after six years as unreasonable restrictions on their profit and wealth. They would rather aspire to be antebellum slaveowners or support corrupt libertarian ideals.
By so doing they demonstrate that they serve mammon rather than God, and that they understand very well the threat of Sabbath to their own desire to exploit the labor and deny the freedom of the poor and of foreigners. Do we understand those implications ourselves by keeping the Sabbath, and therefore supporting and endorsing the freedom of all mankind from the Satanic-inspired exploitation and oppression that the world has known? For there is no neutrality–either we are for freedom and God or we are for oppression and Satan. The fourth commandment makes that plan–the Sabbath is an attack on the domination and oppression that has been the fate of most of the world. Are we fully aware and committed to that attack ourselves?