Keith Hunt - Divine Rest - Page Thirteen   Restitution of All Things

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Divine Rest for Human Restlessness #13

Our Covenant with God


Continued from previous page:

     Abraham Joshua Heschel characterizes time as "otherness," a
mystery transcending human experience, and "togetherness," an
occasion to experience fellowship. Are not otherness and
togetherness basic characteristics of God's nature? Being a
measure of time and not an object, the Sabbath can effectively
remind the believer that he belongs to the God who cannot be
objectified, circumscribed or incapsulated, to the God who is
"beyond," "wholly other," transcending human analogies ("To whom
then will you liken God?" - Is.40:18) and controls. At the same
time, as a moment of togetherness, the Sabbath reminds the
believer that his God is not only "beyond" but also very "close,"
so close that he can rest in Him (Heb.4:10).

An antidote against idolatry. 

     The Sabbath helps maintain a spiritual relationship with God
not only, as just seen, by reminding the believer of God's
nature, but also by protecting him from idolatry. Fritz Guy aptly
states that "worship by means of a holy day is removed as far as
possible from idolatry. It is quite impossible to cut, carve or
construct the image of a day."  Some might challenge this
statement by pointing to the Hebrews, who apparently succeeded,
especially in the days of Jesus, in objectifying the Sabbath by
tying its observance to minute regulations. The reduction of the
Sabbath from an occasion to meet with God, to a "thing" to be
kept with utmost precision, can turn the day from a means of
worship into an object of worship. This adulteration of the
Sabbath does not detract, however, from its unique quality, but
only serves to show that even the most "fireproof" God-given
symbol can be prostituted into an object of legalistic and even
idolatrous worship.

     Of all symbols, the Sabbath as time still remains the one
that best resists objectification. It provides the surest
protection from worshiping "it" rather than worshiping "Him." It
is noteworthy that both at creation and in the Ten Commandments,
mankind is given not a "holy object" but a "holy day" in which to
experience the holiness of God. The first Four Commandments spell
out the three "don'ts" and the one "do" that should regulate the
relationship between God and His people. First, don't give to God
a divided loyalty by worshiping Him as One among many gods.
Second, don't worship God by means of material representations.
Third, don't use thoughtlessly the name of God. Then comes the
Fourth Commandment which is a "do" rather than a "don't." It
invites mankind to "remember" God not through a holy object but
through a holy day. The first three commandments seem designed to
remove the obstacles to a true spiritual relationship with God,
namely, the worship of false gods or of their images and
disrespect for the true God. With the way to God's presence
cleared, the Fourth Commandment invites the believer to
experience divine fellowship, not through the recitation of magic
charms, but in time shared together. Obviously God sees time as a
most fitting symbol of the spiritual relationship that should
exist between Himself and His people. The importance of this
divine choice is underscored by the repeated attempts human
beings have made to reduce a living and spiritual relationship
with God to the veneration of dead objects: shrines icons, tombs,
creeds, and relics (such as the bones of saints, pieces of wood
from a cross, or pieces of garments).
     The small chapel of St.Laurence in Rome is called Sancta
Sanctorum - "The Most Holy." Above its altar, a Latin inscription
reads: Non est in toto sanctior orbe locus, which means, "there
is no holier place in the world."  On what ground is such an
astonishing claim made? Primarily on the basis of the great
number of relics - dead objects - the chapel contains. The most
venerated object is an image of the Redeemer claimed to have been
produced by a divine agency. Can God be blamed for these human
attempts to seek "holiness" through things rather than through an
I-Thou spiritual relationship? Certainly not, for God took utmost
precaution to prevent human beings from materializing and
objectifying His spiritual nature. This is evidenced, for
example, by the fact that when the second Person of the Godhead
became a Human Being for about thirty-three years, He refrained
from leaving a single material mark that can be authenticated as
His own. Chist did not build or own a house; He did not write
books or own a library; He did not leave the exact date of His
birth or of His death; He did not leave descendants. He left an
empty tomb, but even this place is still disputed. He left no
"thing" of Himself, but only the assurance of His spiritual
presence: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age"

     Why did Christ pass through this world in this mysterious
fashion, leaving no physical footprints or material traces of
Himself? Why did the Godhead miss the golden opportunity provided
by the incarnation to leave a permanent material evidence and
reminder of the Savior's stay on this planet? Is this not clear
evidence of God's concern to protect mankind from the constant
temptation of reducing a spiritual relationship into a
"thing-worship"? It was because of this same concern that God
chose the Sabbath - a day rather than an objectas the symbol of a
divine-human belonging relationship. Being time, a mystery that
defies human attempts to define it, the Sabbath provides a
constant protection against the worship of objects and a fitting
reminder of the spiritual nature of the covenant relationship
between God and His people.

6. Commitment

     A sixth reason for God's choice of the Sabbath as a covenant
symbol is that this day expresses effectively the mutual
commitment that binds God and His people. A mutual belonging
relationship can endure only if both parties remember and honor
their respective obligations. How does the Sabbath express divine
and human commitment?

Divine commitment 

     The Sabbath stands first of all for divine commitment. God's
last creative act was not the fashioning of Adam and Eve, but the
creation of His rest for mankind (Gen.2:2-3). Such a divine rest
has a message for the creation as a whole as well as for humanity
in particular. With regard to creation, as noted in chapter two,
God's rest signifies His satisfaction over the completion and
perfection of His creation. With regard to humanity, God's rest
symbolizes His availability to His creatures. By taking "time
out" on the first Sabbath to bless the first couple with His holy
presence, God through this day provides a constant reassurance to
His creatures of His availability and concern. As eloquently
expressed by A.Martin, "The promise to which God commits Himself
through the Sabbath is to have time for mankind. God is not an
idea but a Person who assures all creation of His presence. The
Sabbath is the sign of this promise. However, this is not limited
solely to the Sabbath time. In the same way as Christ's presence
is not limited to the space occupied by the bread, so the Sabbath
reminds mankind of the permanence of God's [presence]."

     This divine commitment becomes explicit in the covenant
relationship, where the Sabbath is presented as God's assurance
of His sanctifying presence among His people (Ex.31:13; Ezek.
20:12). Human disobedience did not alter God's original
commitment. On the contrary, when the estrangement caused by sin
occurred, God through the Sabbath guaranteed His total commitment
to restore the broken covenant relationship. This commitment led
God to give "his only Son, that whoever believes in him should
not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). The Sabbath, as
Karl Barth correctly explains, "reminds man of God's plan for
him, of the fact that He has already carried it out, and that in
His revelation He will execute both His will with him and His
work for and toward him. It points him to the Yes which the
Creator has spoken to him, His creature, and which He has made
true and proved true once and for all in Jesus Christ." 

     The availability of God which the Sabbath guarantees makes
prayer possible. How distressing to be unable to talk to an
important person because he is booked up and unavailable perhaps
for a month or more! The Sabbath is God's assurance of His
constant availability. It tells us that God is listening and
responding, that He wants to dialogue and fellowship with His
creatures. It tells us that God is available and thus can be
approached in prayer not only on the Sabbath but every day. As
the father who, by making himself especially available for his
family on the Sabbath, reveals not a weekly but rather a
permanent devotion to his family, so God, by pledging to be
especially close to His creatures on the Sabbath, reassures them
of His constant interest and availability. The weekly regularity
of the Sabbath serves as a continual reminder that God "is
mindful of his covenant for ever" (Ps.105:8).

Human commitment. 

     The Sabbath stands not only for divine but also for human
commitment. It signifies not only "that I, the Lord, sanctify
you" but also that "you shall keep my sabbaths" (Ex.31:13). By
reassuring human beings that God is available and "working until
now" (John 5:17) to accomplish the ultimate restoration of this
world to His eternal fellowship, the Sabbath invites the believer
to assume his responsibility, by making himself available for
God. By accepting God's invitation to keep the Sabbath with Him,
the believer enters into a special relationship with God. This
relationship is not, as Karl Barth points out, "an indirect but a
direct connection, not only a relationship but genuine
intercourse." It is by assuming this obligation that a person
becomes free: free for God, for self, for the immediate family
and for others. The free offering of time to God is a supreme act
of worship, because it means acknowledging God with the very
essence of human life: time. Life is time. When "time is up" life
ceases to be. The offering of the Sabbath time to God enables the
believer to acknowledge that his whole life, not just one
seventh, belongs to God. It represents the Christian's response
to God's claim on his life. By bringing all routine work to a
halt for one day, he acts out his commitment to the Lord of his
life. A similar objective is accomplished through the return of
the tithe to God, as a recognition of His ultimate ownership.
What is involved in the offering of the Sabbath time to God will
be considered in chapter six. Our immediate concern has been to
understand how the Sabbath meaningfully expresses both divine and
human commitment. We have found that the Sabbath, on the one
hand, symbolizes God's commitment to be available for and to save
humanity. On the other hand, Sabbath keeping expresses the
believer's acceptance of the Creator and Redeemer's claim upon
his life.

7. Redemption

     A seventh reason for God's choice of the Sabbath to
symbolize His covenantal relationship with His people is its
redemptive function. As a symbol of God's saving activities, the
Sabbath provides the basis for experiencing meaningful belonging.
The degree of one's commitment to a person is related to what
such a person has done to deserve loyalty and devotion. A mother
who gives up her son for adoption soon after his birth in order
to be free to pursue her professional career can hardly expect
that the boy later in life will feel filial attachment to her.
The Sabbath reassures the believer that God never gives him up
but has given His very life in order to restore to him life and
divine fellowship. This redemptive function of the Sabbath will
be examined in the following chapter, which is devoted
specifically to "The Sabbath: Good News of Redemption." The study
will show how both in the OT and NT the physical Sabbath rest
points to the greater spiritual rest of salvation to be found in
Christ. The believer who on the Sabbath stops his doing to
experience his being saved by divine grace renounces human
efforts to work out his own salvation and acknowledges his
belonging to God, the author and finisher of his salvation.


     We asked at the outset, What intrinsic characteristics does
the Sabbath possess to enable it to function as a meaningful
symbol of a divine-human covenant relationship? Seven signifi-
cant aspects have been considered in this chapter. 

     First, as the sign of divine ownership, the Sabbath
constantly reminds the believer of his belonging to God. 

     Second, as God's holiness in time, the Sabbath reassures the
believer who keeps it of his divine election and mission in this

     Third, as an incorruptible and universal symbol, the Sabbath
is always fresh in its meaning and enables every human being to
express commitment to God. 

     Fourth, as a type of baptism, the Sabbath provides a weekly
opportunity to renew the baptismal covenant, by experiencing anew
self-renouncement as well as physical, social
and spiritual renewal. 

     Fifth, as a temporal symbol, the Sabbath protects the
believer from idolatry, reminding him of the spiritual nature of
his covenant relationship with God. 

     Sixth, as a fitting symbol of mutual commitment, the Sabbath
reassures humanity of God's availability and invites the believer
to express his belonging to God by offering Him a specific
measure of time - the seventh day - as a token expression of his
total life. 

     Lastly, as a reminder of God's saving activities, the
Sabbath enables the believer to experience and celebrate the
assurance of God's love and the Good News of Belonging to God and
His people.


To be continued

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