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Mark Johnston (MDiv Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church (EPCEW) in Cardiff, Wales. He was previously Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church Bryn Mawr, PA and of Grove Chapel in Camberwell, London. He began his ministry as a church planter in Ireland. He serves on the Board of Banner of Truth Trust and has authored several books including three titles in Banner's Let’s Study series, You in Your Small Corner, and Our Creed.

Column: Resident Aliens by Mark Johnston

The Day the Church Forgot

February 18, 2015 •

For some reason – possibly Superbowl Sunday – the past few weeks have seen a flurry of articles relating to the Sabbath being published online. As pastors across the US braced themselves for a major drop in attendance at their evening service [if they actually had one] it again raised the question of how much weight Christians attach to the Bible’s teaching about the Sabbath.

The questions that surface perennially at this time of year are nothing more than a spike in a pattern that has steadily engulfed the church over the past three decades or so. Growing numbers of Christians have been abandoning any kind of meaningful belief in a day of rest that has been instituted by God.

The debate over the Sabbath is far from new, nor is it in any sense simplistic. (Though often its proponents have failed to wrestle with the nuances of how this theme is handled in the flow of redemptive history). Nevertheless it is a debate that must continue in the church for a host of reasons.

Perhaps the main one, curiously, comes not from a Christian theologian or scholar, but from a Jewish former US Senator. In 2011, Joe Lieberman published a book entitled, The Gift of Rest and subtitled, Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. It turned out to be hugely popular and clearly struck a chord with the reading public in America – not just in the Jewish and Christian communities, but across the nation.

It was not Lieberman’s theology of the Sabbath that struck me when this book appeared, but the fact that it resonated with a very real felt need in today’s world. Indeed, the Jewish community in Britain sounded a similar note with the Shabbat UK initiative that encouraged Jews throughout the UK to observe the Sabbath, even if they had fallen out of the habit of doing so. Here too it captured the imagination of the wider public and made the national news headlines.

In both instances it struck me as more than a little ironic that while Sabbath-loving Christians were struggling to convince their fellow-believers of the value of this God-given institution, their Jewish neighbours succeeded in doing for two great nations. Despite widespread indifference and even disdain for the notion of a day of rest that is clearly prevalent in both the Christian and Jewish communities at large, there is still something deep within the human psyche that cries out for it.

That in turn raises the question as to why the church has been so unpersuasive on this issue with its own people, let alone with the weary masses among whom they live.

The answer in part may lie in the way the church has tended to teach the Sabbath and encourage the faithful to observe it. It seems to me that almost invariably it has reversed the order of biblical logic in its efforts to do so. That is, it has tended to teach the Sabbath law before teaching the Sabbath principle.

At a most basic level this goes against the grain of how law is presented in Scripture. The divine imperative is almost always preceded by the divine  indicative. The fact that the Decalogue itself is not presented at Sinai in isolation, but as flowing out of the grace-filled words of its preface is the most delightful example of this. God’s laws can only produce their intended positive outcome when they are undergirded by his redeeming grace. Otherwise they will only be blunt instruments that crush and condemn.

So, if the Sabbath law is taught without reference to the Sabbath principle, it will inevitably become dark and stultifying, rather than the ‘day of rest and gladness’ God intended it to be.

On the other hand, if we trace the roots of the Sabbath law back to the soil into which it was planted from the beginning of time in Creation (Ge 2.1-4) and through into its outworking into the sabbatical year (Lev 25.1-7) and year of Jubilee (Lev 25.8-17) that God wove into the fabric of the life of Israel, we see the larger context to which this law belongs. Indeed, following it into its New Testament denouement, it becomes very clear that Sabbath and salvation are intimately connected and in places are clearly synonymous (Mt 11.28-30; He 4.1-11). And following the thread through the Scriptures, it leads us to the eternal Sabbath rest of heaven (He 4.4-11).

Seen in that light, the fact God saw fit to institute a day of rest into the rhythm of life from the beginning should not be treated lightly. It was never meant to be an end in itself, but a preview and a foretaste of the better things that he had planned and would ultimately purchase in redemption through his Son. So for God’s people – not merely for themselves, but in their influence on humanity at large – the day has far more value than has often been recognised.

Joe Lieberman – perhaps unintentionally – managed to capture it well when he gave his reason for writing Gift of Rest. It was not that people ‘might recharge their batteries and become better workers, but recharge their souls and become better people’. His theological basis for that statement aside, that has indeed been God’s purpose in instituting the Sabbath from the very beginning: that it might become a vehicle for communion with him and with his people and the enrichment of life to which it leads.

Seen in that light, there are many other ramifications that flow out of our view of Sabbath and how it is to be enjoyed – not least in recognising the extent to which it is bound up with the public worship of the church. There is not time to discuss it here, but there is good reason to believe the reason why this vital component of the life of the church has been plunged into such confusion, disarray and dissatisfaction in recent decades is because it has been dislocated from a functional doctrine of the Lord’s Day.

There may have been a touch of divine irony in the publication of Lieberman’s book in that God used a Jew and not a Presbyterian or Baptist to remind the world that there is a day the church has all but forgotten – a day intended for the good of all creation! 

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