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Divine Rest for Human Restlessness #11

Sign of Belonging

  DIVINE REST FOR HUMAN RESTLESSNESS #11

                        THE GOOD NEWS OF BELONGING


by Dr.Samuele Bacchiocchi
 

     The desire to belong to someone is a fundamental human urge.
In my native country until recently, children born out of wedlock
were often deprived of a paternity. On their birth certificate,
as well as in their identification documents, in place of the
father's name (surname) there would be the two letters "N.N.,"
which stands for nescio nomen that is, "name unknown." Frequently
newspapers reported the touching story of such an
"anonymous-nameless" person's success in finding his or her
natural father, after years of tireless and often expensive
search. The fact that people will spend much time and money to
trace their ancestry illustrates how deep-rooted is the need to
know to whom one belongs.
     Experience teaches that a person who does not belong to
anyone or anything is in most cases unmotivated, rebellious,
alienated and bitter toward all and everything. On the other
hand, it is in a relationship of mutual belonging that a person
experiences love, identity and security, which are essential
ingredients for healthy growth and adequate motivation. How do
people express mutual belonging? Basically, through words,
attitudes and actions. Sometimes gifts are given or exchanged as
a token-symbol of mutual devotion and belonging. A young lady
remarked to a friend, "What a gorgeous engagement watch your
fiance has given you!" Obviously, that watch served not only to
tell the time of day, but also to remind the young lady that she
belonged to someone who loved her.


PART I

THE COVENANT AS DIVINE-HUMAN BELONGING


     The need to express mutual belonging exists both at the
human and at the divine-human level. God, in fact, has revealed
Himself not as an abstract entity or ideal, but as a personal
Being, vitally interested in the well-being and commitment of His
creatures.


1. Biblical Models

     Various human models have been used during the history of
salvation to help human beings conceptualize and experience a
meaningful relationship with the invisible God. Some of the
significant human models found in the NT are: "forgiveness" which
derives from the cancellation of debts; "reconciliation" and
"adoption" which are drawn from personal and familial
relationship; "redemption" which derives from the emancipation
(manumission) of slaves; "justification" which is based on the
declaration of guiltlessness by a law court; "sanctification"
which derives especially from the sanctuary model, the symbol of
God's sanctifying presence.
     A prominent human analogy used in the OT, and to a lesser
extent in the NT, is the concept of the covenant, a means widely
used in the ancient world to regulate social and political
relation ships beyond natural blood kinship. Basically the
covenant was a treaty or a contract between two parties who
freely and willingly bound themselves to accept certain mutual
obligations.


2. The Covenant Model

     The covenant concept was adopted with radical modifications
to express the mutual belonging relationship existing between God
and His people. One striking characteristic of the Biblical
covenant, not found in the ancient political covenants, is God's
emotional appeal to His people. The Lord says, for example: "You
have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on
eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you
will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own
possession among all peoples" (Ex.19:45). Though the covenant was
based on God's revealed commandments which the people were
expected to observe (Ex.24:7; Deut.27:1), its ultimate function
was to reveal God's saving grace in and through His people: "You
shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex.19:6;
cf. Deut.14:1-2; 26:19).


Law and grace in the covenant. 

     The dichotomy often made between law and grace is not
present in the OT covenant. Recent studies have shown that "it is
with the demands of the commandments that God's grace becomes
known. That is, it is not possible to equate the covenant with
grace and then the commandments with law. The discrepancy between
covenant and commandments [i.e., grace and law] in the way in
which it has been understood in Protestantism does not exist in
the 01d Testament. This will soon become clearer when considering
the role of the Sabbath in the covenant relationship.  For the
present it is sufficient to note that the covenant analogy is
used effectively in the Scriptures to aid in conceptualizing and
experiencing a mutual belonging relationship between God and His
people ("You shall be my own possession among all peoples" Ex.
19:5).


Covenant signs and symbols.   

     In the Bible several covenant signs or symbols are given to
remind human beings of God's concern for them and of their
commitment to God. The rain bow is given to Noah as a covenant
sign (Gen.9:8-17). Circumcision is offered as a covenant sign to
Abraham and his descendants (Gen.17:1-4). Bread and wine are
chosen by Christ as the emblems "of the covenant" ratified
through His blood (Mark 16:24; Matt.26:28). These and similar
signs have been given during the history of salvation to reassure
human beings of God's concern to save them and to restore them to
fellowship with Him. One might say that the covenant concept,
which is introduced in the OT and renewed and ratified by Christ
in the NT, represents God's everlasting promise and plan to save
a people who in turn will extend salvation to others. This
concept is expressed incisively by Peter when he writes, "You are
a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own
people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who
called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (I Peter
2:9; cf. Deut.20:10; Gen.12:2-3).


3. The Sabbath as Symbol of Belonging

Unique symbol. 

     It is noteworthy that among the various God-given conversant
signs or symbols, the Sabbath occupies a unique place. It is
unique because it is not an object or a place accessible only to
a few, but a day (time) available to all. It is unique also
because it has functioned as the symbol par excellence of the
divine election and mission of God's people. Five times in the
Scripture the Sabbath desognated as "a perpetual  covenant" or as
a "sign" between Yahweh and His people (Ex.31:13,16,17; Ezek.
20:12,21). De Quervain brings out lucidly this role of the
Sabbath when he writes: "It is the observance of this commandment
that decides in the old covenant whether Israel fears and loves
God and knows that it is the people of God. For this day is the
sign of the covenant set up in Israel. He who does not join in
the rejoicing, who does not rest from his work in this joy,
despises God's goodness and faithfulness and puts his hope, not
in God's election, but in his own work. Hence the Sabbath is in a
special way the sign of good tidings in the Old Testament." 


Unique origin. 

     The Sabbath is a unique covenant sign, first of all because
it is the first sign given by God to reveal His desire to
fellowship with His creatures. The day tells us that God created
human beings to live not in mystical solitude but in the joy of
His fellowship. As explained in Hebrews, "God rested on the
seventh day" that He might invite His people "to enter it [God's
rest]" (Heb.4:4-6). Karl Barth rightly calls God's rest at the
conclusion of creation "the covenant of the grace of God,"
because it invites "man to rest with Him ... to participate in
God's rest." By resting, Barth explains, God "seriously accepted
the world and man when He had created them, associating Himself
with them in the fullest sense ... Hence the history of the
covenant was really established in the event of the seventh day."
The covenant is God's "yes" to His creatures and the Sabbath is
the time to listen again to this "yes." As the symbol of God's
initial invitation to mankind to fellowship with Him, the Sabbath
provides the starting point and the basis for all subsequent
manifestations of divine grace. When the harmonious fellowship
was interrupted by human disobedience, the immediate result was
loneliness and separation from God. "The Lord God sent him forth
from the garden" (Gen.3:23), and Adam and Eve found themselves
exiled from the direct fellowship with God. When Eden was lost,
the Sabbath remained as the weekly reminder and the symbol of
God's desire and plan to restore the broken relationship of
fellowship and mutual belonging with His fallen creatures.


Unique survival. 

     The Sabbath is unique also because it has survived not only
the Fall, but also the Flood, the Egyptian slavery, the
Babylonian exile, the Roman persecution, the French and Russian
temporary introduction of the ten-day week, blank-day calendar
proposals (interrupting the weekly-cycle), antinomianism, and
modern secularism. The day still stands for God's people as the
symbol of God's gracious provision of salvation and belonging to
God. The ancient prophets recognized the value of Sabbathkeeping
in maintaining allegiance to God. Ezekiel, for example, when he
saw the danger of the total extinction of God's people as a
result of the exile, appealed to them to remember their divine
election by means of the distinguishing function of the Sabbath
(Ezek.24:12-21). Similarly Isaiah presents the Sabbath as the
symbol of belonging to the covenant not only for the Jews (Is.
58:13-14), but also for "the foreigners who join themselves to
the Lord" Is.56:6,7,2,4).


Unique function. 

     The Sabbath is, furthermore, a unique covenant symbol
because it has helped believers throughout the ages to maintain
their faith - their belonging relationship with God. The regular
observance of the Sabbath, as noted by Dennis J. McCarthy, "was a
medium which handed on knowledge of the covenant as a
relationship and a doctrine." Achad Haam underlines this vital
function of the Sabbath in the History of Judaism, stating: "We
can affirm without any exaggeration that the Sabbath has
preserved the Jews more than the Jews have preserved the Sabbath.
If the Sabbath had not restored to them the soul, renewing every
week their spiritual life, they would have become so degraded by
the depressing experiences of the work-days, that they would have
descended to the last step of materialism and of moral and
intellectual decadence." 

     Sabbathkeeping has contributed to the survival not only of
Judaism but of Christianity as well. The essence of a Christian
life is a relationship with God. Such a relationship grows and
becomes more meaningful, especially through the time and
opportunities for worship, service, meditation, and fellowship
provided by the Sabbath day. Consequently a proper observance of
God's holy day reflects a healthy relationship with God, while
disregard for it bespeaks spiritual decline. This was true in
ancient Israel; it is also true in modern Christianity.
     In a country like Italy, for example, where less than 10 of
the Christian population attend church services on what they
regard as their Lord's day (Saturday evening or Sunday) there    
is today the largest Communist party of Western Europe (about
35 % of the electorate vote for it). The relationship between the
two can hardly be viewed as being merely a coincidence. In other
Western European nations where church attendance is even lower
than in Italy, secularism, atheism, anticlericalism, immorality,
and religious skepticism are rampant. It would be naive to
attribute all the social and religious evils to the prevailing
disregard for God's holy day, but by the same token it would be
blindness to fail to see the tragic consequences resulting from
the profanation of the Sabbath in society.
     In a speech delivered on November 13, 1862, President
Abraham Lincoln emphasized this vital function of the Sabbath,
saying: "As we keep or break the Sabbath day, we nobly save or
meanly lose the last and best hope by which man arises." 
     Obviously for Abraham Lincoln the Sabbath day meant Sunday.
Puritans applied the name and the precept of the Sabbath to
Sunday. This does not detract from the fact that one of America's
outstanding presidents recognized in the Sabbath precept the last
best hope that can renew and elevate human beings. If this were
true in Lincoln's day, is it not truer in our time, when so many
"isms" (materialism, secularism, hedonism, atheism, capitalism,
communism, evolutionism, liberalism) are cornpeting for human
allegiance? When the tyranny of things enslaves many lives? Today
therefore more than ever before, the Sabbath is needed to
liberate human beings from the bondage to the many isms, and to
enable them to rediscover the peace of fellowship and belonging
to God for which they were created.


PART 2

REASONS FOR THE DIVINE CHOICE OF THE SABBATH AS COVENANT SYMBOL

     The preceding considerations suggest three basic reasons why
the Sabbath is a unique symbol of human-divine belonging, namely,
because of its origin, its survival, and its function. To
comprehend more fully its uniqueness, it may help at this point
to inquire why God has chosen the Sabbath (a day rather than an
object) to aid human beings to experience and express a belonging
relationship with Him. What characteristics does the seventh day
possess that enable it to function as a meaningful symbol of a
covenant relationship? The Scripture suggests at least seven
reasons.


Ownership

     A first reason for the divine choice of the Sabbath to
symbolize a mutual belonging relationship is suggested by the
fact that the day is, to use M.G.Kline's words, the Creator's
"seal of ownership and authority." As a seal of divine ownership,
the Sabbath provides the legitimate basis for a covenant
relationship. This meaning of ownership is explicitly expressed
both in the Fourth Commandment and in its sister institutions,
the sabbatical and the jubilee years. In the Commandment the
believer is invited to "remember" on the Sabbath that "in six
days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in
them (Ex.20:11; 31:17). As Creator, God is the only legitimate
Owner of this world. In the sabbatical and jubilee years the
Israelites were enjoined to relinquish the use of the land and to
liberate their fellow beings from poverty and bondage (Lev.25;
Deut.15:1-18), in order to acknowledge that Yahweh is the only
rightful owner of the land ("The land is mine and you are but
aliens and my tenants" - Lev.25:23--NIV).

     As the symbol of divine ownership, the Sabbath enables the
believer to realize constantly and effectively that this world
and, his very life belong to God.  This recognition of God's
of one's life is indispensable for a total commitmentand
belonging to God.

                           ....................


To be continued

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