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Sliding on Thin Ice

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My first job out of residency was at an emergency room in Vermont. We lived in a rural outpost with our 18-month-old daughter, Emma, and 3-year-old son, Clark. It’s where I learned a lesson about trust.

It had been a long, cloudy winter. By February, our town had already gotten 12 feet of snow. As I went downstairs to get more firewood, I noted the pile in the basement was getting low.

“I’ll need to go out and transfer some wood into the basement,” I said to my wife, Nancy.

“Why don’t you take Clark along to help?” she suggested.

Getting a child into snow gear is like suiting up a Mercury-era astronaut. It would take less time to bring in the firewood than to get Clark into his snowsuit, boots, hat, scarf, and gloves. So I answered, “Great idea.”

I struggled to walk in the deep snow, but at age three, Clark was light enough to walk on top. I began clearing a path to the firewood.

Our home sat on a steep slope that ended in a 20-foot drop to the frozen road below. Our kids had been taught to stay well clear of the slope that led to the drop-off. As I brought wood inside, Clark played near me. I kept an eye on him, and he stayed where he should.

But there was a problem. The day before, the south-facing area where the slope began had partially melted. The surface refroze overnight, covering the snow with a slick, invisible crust. Without going past where it was normally safe to play, Clark unwittingly stepped onto the frictionless surface and fell face forward. And because he was on smooth ice, he couldn’t get back up the small incline. I was unaware of the situation until I heard him scream, “Dad!”

I turned and saw him sliding toward the cliff. Each time he scrambled to get up, he fell farther down the slope. For a split second he paused, glanced up at me in horror, and his downward slide stopped. In the next instant, when he resumed his attempts to get up, he began sliding again.

“Stop!” I screamed.

I dropped the wood and ran through the snow. As I raced toward Clark, he did the only thing he could do to help. It went against all his natural reflexes: he stopped. He listened to his father. I grabbed him by the hood of his jacket, lifted him up, and hauled him back to safety.

The Most Ignored Commandment

My son trusted his father. He knew I would do nothing that harmed him and that I would die to save him. Today, most of us feel as if we don’t have enough hours in the  day. We’re sliding on thin ice. Our natural response is to go faster. Our Father in heaven says, “Stop!” Will we listen? Sabbath is an act of trust, a weekly affirmation that God’s ways are better than ours.

As I understand the theology of Sabbath, Sabbath keeping is not a condition of getting into heaven. It just happens to be the condition heaven is in—if you get there. If you want a peek over the fence into paradise, spend one day a week resting in Christ.

No person or society has ever stumbled upon the Sabbath. Fallen man inevitably ends up doing no work or else working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. God alone sets the pattern of resting one day a week.

“And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Gen. 2:3). God rests, God is holy, and therefore rest is holy. Sabbath is the crown of God’s Creation and is written into the fabric of the universe.

When Christ was resurrected on Sunday, the Church moved the observance of the fourth commandment to Sunday, calling it the Lord’s Day, a term most Christians use interchangeably with Sabbath.

Since then, every generation of the Church has observed the Sabbath, putting aside commerce and attending to the things of God. This was true when the Roman church split from the Eastern church. Calvin and Luther reaffirmed the practice of Sabbath during the Reformation. The mother of John and Charles Wesley taught all her children the Sabbath before they could even walk. D. L. Moody predicted if the Sabbath were lost, the family, Church, and nation would follow. As missionaries have taken the gospel around the world, they have taken Sabbath with them. Sabbath is the real estate in time God deeded to the Church to build on.

But over the last several decades, the Church has embarked on an experiment. We are trying to advance God’s Kingdom without the Sabbath. I leave it to you to decide how the experiment is going.

A Time to Remember

What did your family do on Sundays when you were growing up? How come you can remember Sundays when you were a child, but you can’t recall what happened on Tuesdays?

I‘ve heard many memories of Sabbath. What people recall is going to church, coming home, and having meals with family, friends, and relatives. They remember naps—voluntary and mandatory. They remember visiting relatives. Most recall that on Sundays no one went shopping. By recalling these memories, they are in part already fulfilling the commandment to “remember the Sabbath.”

Illustration by Kenneth Crane

What they remember are not random recollections. Their memories of Sundays follow a specific pattern found in the Ten Commandments. Going to church is really about keeping the first three of the Ten Commandments: to make God the Lord of our life; to put aside activities that can so easily become gods and idols; and to call on the Lord in reverence, prayer, and worship—rather than to take His name in vain (see Ex. 20:1–17).

But what about commandments 5 through 10? What about honoring parents, not killing, committing adultery, stealing, lying, or coveting? Surprisingly, these commandments are also tied to memories of Sundays.

As a parent and grandparent, nothing honors me more than my family sharing a meal in peace with the Lord invited to the table. This is the very definition of the fifth commandment: to honor one’s parents.

What about not killing? Physically impossible to do when one is taking a nap.

And how does the commandment to be faithful in marriage relate to the Sabbath? If you were a child who took a Sunday nap, you may recall waking early and going to your parents’ bedroom only to find the door locked. They were not committing adultery.

The Lord in His infinite wisdom gave families a day to recover from the stresses and temptations of the work-a-day world. Lying, stealing, and coveting also are less likely to occur when stores are closed and commerce is stopped.

A Time to Heal

The fourth commandment is the longest of the 10. It is the only commandment that begins with the word remember, as if God knew we would forget. I think of the Sabbath as a bridge between God and humanity. When I walk out on that bridge, God never stands me up.

To answer the question, “Why have Christians given up the Sabbath?” consider who has a vested interest in subtracting rest from our lives. Who is against church, naps, and meals with our parents? Hint: There is no saying, “Work like the Messiah.” There is only one person in the Bible who introduces himself to God as busy. We find him in the beginning of the Book of Job. He is late to a meeting. When God asked him where he has been, Satan replies, “I’m busy. I’ve been going to and fro, back and forth on the earth” (see Job 1:7, 2:2).

In contrast, Jesus is the Prince of Peace. He invites us to learn from Him and find rest for our weary souls (see Matt. 11:29). In His sermon at His hometown synagogue, Jesus declared the “acceptable year of the Lord.” This is the Jubilee Year, the year of Sabbaths. When He sat down after reading from Isaiah, Jesus told His listeners that the Scripture He had read was fulfilled. Jesus is the Author of Sabbath and the Lord of the day. We do not need to save the Sabbath; the Sabbath—Jesus—came to save us.

Spread over four gospels, Jesus does seven miracles on the Sabbath. Not only is this a majority of the miracles Jesus performed but it also represents a perfect and complete number of miracles. Moreover, all of the miracles Jesus performed on the Sabbath were healings. Sabbaths are meant to heal us. Although very little scientific study has been done on Sabbath keepers, all preliminary results point toward greater health and a longer life span in those who keep the Sabbath.

A Time to Have Fun

I’ve noted an interesting pattern concerning the Sabbath. Sabbath keepers are more likely to display the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). God’s rest is more powerful than our work.

The longer I experience the joy of Sabbath, the less I understand believers in Christ wanting to opt out of God’s weekly pace of grace. Sabbath is just plain fun if you’re doing it right.

A few weeks ago, I preached about Sabbath at an Alliance church plant in Lexington, Kentucky, called New City Church. It meets in what used to be a large bread factory. (And, no, the symbolism of this didn’t escape me!)

Although the church is only two years old, it had to add a second service recently. I could tell there was something different about this church and not just because I was twice everyone’s age. I asked how many in the church try to keep a weekly Sabbath. I’m used to about 1 in 10 hands going up in the typical evangelical church. Imagine my delight when more than a third of the hands were raised.

New City Church is led by Zach Meerkreebs, who was raised in an orthodox Jewish home and became a Christian in his teens.

“Growing up, Sabbath keeping was a chore,” he relates. “But as a Christian, it became one of the major ways I understand Christ.”

Zach and his church feel so strongly about the need for Sabbath that the church includes Rest along with Love, Risk, and Send as one of its four foundational pillars. How strongly do they rely on Christ’s rest? The church is closed every seventh Sunday. On that Sunday, members fellowship with others and offer hospitality. And the church continues to grow.

8 responses to Sliding on Thin Ice

  1. I love this article. When I was growing up in a Pastor’s home. Roast beef dinner, naps or doing Sunday School papers. No bike riding. Just resting. We rested because we went back to church at 5:30 for choir practice! Sweet memories and the teachings of Scripture I learned.

  2. The seventh day Sabbath is really Saturday. Even as you noted the church changed it to Sunday which is the first day of the week.

  3. Thank you, Matthew, for a wonderful, and humorous, reminder of the importance of remembering the Sabbath and creating Sabbath memories with our families. You’re so right – many of my best memories from my childhood are Sabbath memories, and my family weren’t even Christians! (but we were church-goers, as most people were) I can only hope that we have created and continue to create that kind of tradition and obedience for our children and grandchildren.

  4. Read Herews 4. Jesus is our Sabbath Rest every day and not one day we seek to rest.
    Romans and Colosians are very clear;we are not under the Law! The Law, moral, civil and ceremonial has been nailed to the cross.

  5. Wow, this is such an important conversation! As previously noted, “the Lord’s Day” did not start with the resurrection; it started some time after that; and Sunday is NOT the Sabbath.
    Never the less, it is great to see the church re-engaging in the dialog.
    My wife and I started intentionally keeping the seventh day Sabbath over a year ago, and the blessing it has been to our spiritual and physical life is amazing.

  6. I just want to thank Timothy for his response. I too have found great blessing in keeping the seventh day Sabbath and in understanding this topic from the proper Jewish perspective. He is so correct in the fact that G-d shows up on the day He appointed. I’m so glad we are discussing these issues….so glad!

  7. Congratulations to Matthew Sleeth for opening a long overlooked and overdue discussion regarding Christian weekly Sabbath observance! Matthew makes several excellent points among them noting that this is the most ignored of the 10 Commandments. He also explains that weekly rest can provide personal benefits. While this is certainly true the Sabbath is not about us, it is about God! In Leviticus 23:1-3 we read:

    1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘These are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies. 3 “‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord.

    From this passage, we learn that the weekly Sabbath and the other Biblical appointed times are God’s appointments. The original Hebrew word is “Moed” which means an appointed time or an appointment (not necessarily a festival as translated in the NIV). It is God himself that sets the appointed times. It is critical to understand that since God himself set the appointment He will be there! If you do not show up you will miss the appointment with the creator of the universe! The second point derived from this passage is one that has eluded most Christians for centuries. God clearly states in multiple passages that weekly Sabbath is on the seventh day. The seventh day of the week is Saturday, not Sunday. Although Sunday is a great day to worship it is not the Biblical seventh-day Sabbath.

    While Church lore claims that the weekly Sabbath was changed to Sunday because of the resurrection this is misleading and inaccurate. There is not one passage in scripture that clearly claims that the weekly Sabbath was moved to Sunday (remeber God himself set the day). The passages cited are typically misunderstood outside of a first century Jewish context. For example, a biblical (Jewish) day begins at sundown, not at midnight. There were actually several factors that led to the gradual change of Christian “Sabbath” observance from Saturday to Sunday. Among them were Roman taxation on anyone with “Jewish” forms of worship and general animosity in Jewish Synagogues towards anyone believing in a Jewish Messiah after the failed second Jewish Revolt (led by a false “Messiah” named Bar Koba from 132AD-135AD). The full scope of this history is outside the spoke of this brief response. However, God set the appointment and humans cannot change it!

    It also bears noting that the change was gradual and even in the fourth century AD there were still large numbers of seventh day Sabbath (Saturday) keepers. In the year 321 AD Emperor Constantine issued a decree, “On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed” (Codex Justinianus lib. 3, tit. 12, 3; trans. in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3, p. 380, note 1).

    Personally, I have found the weekly Sabbath the most difficult yet most rewarding of God’s commandments. The weekly Seventh-day Sabbath observance is a joy, privilege and a chance to meet with our creator. It is a journey full of blessings. God set the appoinment don’t miss it! Why not start the journey yourself this week?

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