‘If You Call the Sabbath a Delight’ (Part 1)

Church

I taught a class last week on how New Testament Christians should understand the Old Testament law, and I knew the first question that would be asked as soon as I was done. Sure enough: “What about the Sabbath? Does that commandment still apply to us today?”

For some modern American Christians, that’s a silly question: Of course it doesn’t. Jesus abolished the Sabbath requirement, as verses like Colossians 2:16 make plain. For other Christians, it’s a silly question for the opposite reason: Of course we should keep the Sabbath. It is a command of God, rooted in his work of creation and redemption, making it one of the commandments which Jesus warns against discarding in Matthew 5:17-20.

For other Christians, the question of the Sabbath is a matter of confusion and guilt. You are not sure what to think, but you suspect you may be displeasing God and missing some blessing which could come from using Sunday (or is it Saturday?) differently.

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‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Is the Lord God Almighty’

Nadab and Abihu

In the latter pages of Exodus and the first chapters of Leviticus, God gives the Ten Commandments, appears to Moses in such glory that his face shines, commissions the construction of the tabernacle and then appears in a cloud of glory within it, institutes the offerings by which Israel will worship him, and establishes the Aaronic priesthood to mediate between himself and the people.

Then two of Aaron’s sons offer “strange fire” before the Lord and are consumed in a fiery judgment.

Leviticus 10 comes as a shocking jolt to us today, coming as it does on the heels of God’s covenant promises and establishment of the institutions which would allow his people to dwell with him. We see the law, the tabernacle, the sacrifices and the priesthood—and then sudden, fiery death. Imagine how much more appalling it would have been to the people of Israel themselves, as they were jarringly reminded that it was not safe to take their God lightly.

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Born Bound Together

Crosses

According to the Bible, the sinful choice of one man and his wife thousands of years ago profoundly affected the course of every human life after theirs, including your own. As Romans 5:12 puts it, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” I Corinthians adds simply, “in Adam all die” (15:22). We are not told the precise mechanics of the Fall and how it influences us today, but the Bible makes it clear that it had debilitating effects on every one of Adam’s race. We still make real, meaningful choices whether to sin or not, but there is something ugly in us now; something which draws us to sin and keeps us from the innocence and freedom that Adam and Eve enjoyed, and squandered, in the Garden.

It’s easy to feel this isn’t especially fair. Why should the rebellion of the first humans have any effect whatsoever on their descendants? Why should we be tied to our first parents by metaphysical cords which pull us down after them?

On one level, the answers to these questions are simply a mystery. Perhaps we will understand more in Heaven, or perhaps not. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which God’s ways are not our ways, and our finite understanding cannot plumb the depths of divine wisdom. But that does not mean we cannot understand at all. As we consider why the Fall had such a morally crippling effect on the rest of the human race, something which appears at first glance to be another, different “problem” with the biblical account is both clarifying and comforting.

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Trusting God About Sin and Atonement

Statue with scales of justice

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14)

According to the Bible, human sinfulness cuts us off from a holy God, so he sent his Son to take on a human life and then die to redeem us from our sins. Through faith, Christ’s blood atones for us so we can come into the presence of God as children rather than condemned sinners.

For those raised in the church, such a summary of the gospel may seem natural and intuitive, but for many unbelievers it is a weird, incomprehensible idea. Some even see it as unjust and wicked. Why would God demand blood before he forgave? And how can one person’s blood, shed two thousand years ago, have any effect on my own, personal guilt anyway?

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Hating Sin Sinfully (or, About that YouTube Video)

I saw something vile on the internet today. I suppose that is not especially surprising, but this particular bit of vileness came courtesy of a pastor, so I felt it was worth commenting on. Because Pastor Steven Anderson chose to broadcast his views on YouTube, I think it is appropriate to respond to him by name, in the spirit of Galatians 2:11.

Anderson is the pastor of a small independent Baptist church in Arizona, and his reaction to the Orlando nightclub massacre was to declare that “The good news is that there’s fifty less pedophiles in this world, because, you know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles.” His video goes on to misunderstand and misapply Levitical civil law by calling for the execution of homosexuals before finishing by lamenting the “bad news… that a lot of the homos in the bar are still alive.”

Anderson has, of course, been roundly condemned from all corners of the Christian church, but I think it is worthwhile to spend a moment considering exactly why his video was offensive and, more importantly, sinful.

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Assurance: How do we know that the gospel is true?

Last week, I wrote about how evidence-based arguments are tools which can only reach probable conclusions, even in the realm of apologetics. A good argument (and Christian apologists have many) can demonstrate a very, very high probability that the God of the Bible exists, but the honest apologist should always admit that his arguments cannot demonstrate the truth of Christianity with absolute, 100 percent certainty. My article last week talked about why this is not a problem, because we are not merely bringing unbelievers to the conclusion of a syllogism, but to a real, active God without whose call no one would believe (John 6:44). But the topic raises other questions for the thoughtful Christian. If evidence-based arguments cannot offer perfect certainty, does that mean the most we can say about the Bible is that it is probably true?

The answer to that question is an emphatic “No.” When I say the Bible is true, I am speaking from a deeper confidence than that which comes from accumulated evidence. Compelling evidence may prompt someone to seriously investigate the claims of Scripture, but once they surrender themselves in faith–once they become a Christian–the real presence of God enters them in the person of the Holy Spirit; and that changes everything. Among many other things, the presence of the Holy Spirit means we can know in a new and different way.

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Faith, love, and true religion

I was thinking of writing a post about Christian faith today when I stumbled across this quote from the 19th-century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Ah! what a divine religion might be found out if charity were really made the principle of it instead of faith.

What better spot from which to embark on a discussion of Christian faith? Shelley’s wish is a popular one: for a religion of love and kindness, stripped of heavenly pretensions or supernatural hopes. (At the time, “charity” meant love or goodwill toward others, rather than its narrow contemporary meaning of giving to worthy causes.) It is plain that Shelley sees charity and faith as being at least somewhat opposed; either one or the other will be the guiding principle of one’s religious life. The poet is not the only one with this perspective. Many today see what he calls charity as practical service and care for others, while faith is an airy and impractical mass of heavenly hopes. Charity stretches out a hand to one’s neighbor to help him, while faith casts prayer and belief heavenward in hopes that one’s soul will follow on the final day. If that is an accurate picture of faith, then it is easy to see why religion must pick one or the other as its emphasis and foundation.

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What Uzzah can teach us about religious exclusivism

One of the most important mindsets we can cultivate as Christians is the ability to see the full picture. The world loves to highlight some little part of what the Bible teaches and shout, “Hey, this is wrong and ugly!” Sometimes it even looks like they’re right, but that’s because we aren’t seeing the whole picture. If I tell you that a man hit a little kid, that sounds cruel and wicked–unless you know the child was choking and the man was pounding her back to clear an airway. It is easy to misunderstand a little snippet of a larger scene, and it is especially easy to do that with the Bible, because it is a huge book that is full of stories and teachings which sometimes make no sense until we step back and look at the full picture.

Today I want to consider two things the Bible tells us which look unpleasant by themselves but which make much more sense, and even combine into something beautiful, when we view them together.

The first piece is the strange story of Uzzah and the ark of the covenant. When King David was bringing the ark back to Jerusalem, II Samuel 6 records,

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Free Choices, God’s Sovereignty, and Apparent Contradictions

I was talking with a group of high school students last year about making wise decisions as a Christian. As I planned what I would say, I kept wanting to discuss how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things, but I suppressed the urge to wander off into philosophical weeds that the audience would find boring and abstract. The evening of the event, I spoke briefly and then opened things up for discussion. One of the first questions was about how our ability to make meaningful choices can coexist with God’s control over all things. As was the next question. And the next. Apparently, there are a lot of us poking around in this particular clump of philosophical weeds.

Thoughtful Christians throughout history have struggled to reconcile these two plain yet paradoxical teachings of Scripture. First, the Bible is quite clear that God controls all things. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes.” In Daniel 4:35b, Nebuchadnezzar confesses, “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?'” Or consider the many detailed prophecies that were fulfilled centuries later. Why do God’s “best laid schemes” enjoy somewhat greater certainty than those of mice and men? One hundred percent accuracy in predicting the future is only possible for One who controls all the variables necessary to ensure the outcome He promised.

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Remembering that sometimes things change

A devout Jew in the first century BC would have gone to the synagogue every Sabbath to hear teaching and readings from the Scriptures. Each week, men from the community would rise to read from the books of the Law and from the prophets who foretold a Messiah, scribes and respected elders would explain the meaning of these Scriptures to the people, and then they would all go home as another week cycled on past, as the people and the weeks had done for generation after generation. One imagines a middle-aged man and his family, from Capernaum, say; godly, careful to observe the Sabbath, there every week to listen as the old scrolls are opened and the thinning grey beards move over them in patient explanation. He might sit on the same bench where his father had sat, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, as they listened to the same words, promises so old they predated the worn stone walls around them. So they waited. And then, one Sabbath, someone from the audience rose to speak in the usual way, and the most unexpected thing happened: what they had been expecting. “They went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and began to teach. They were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

One of the world’s greatest lies is that nothing ever really changes. Sure, Eve, eat that fruit–God may not be happy, but really, what’s the worst that could happen?

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