Posts Tagged ‘Hermeneutics’

Seven Spirits

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

Revelation 3:1

Does God have one Holy Spirit or does he have seven spirits? This verse clearly says “the seven spirits of God” and we can’t just say “yeah but we know he only has one.” So how do we understand this verse?

We have to consider the context it is in. This is part of the opening of the book of Revelation, the letters to the seven churches. Each letter’s introduction follows the same format: “To the angel of the church in [city] write: ‘The words of [descriptor]. I know [your works/where you dwell]‘” and then the letter. The ‘seven spirits’ is in the descriptor and we know where those descriptors come from. They are each part of John’s initial vision of Jesus in 1:4-20:

  • To the church in Ephesus the descriptor is “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” which is from 1:20.
  • To the church in Smyrna the descriptor is “the first and the last, who died and came to life” from 1:17-18.
  • To the church in Pergamum the descriptor is “him who has the sharp two-edged sword” from 1:16.
  • To the church in Thyatira the descriptor is “the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze” from 1:14-15.
  • To the church in Sardis the descriptor is “him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” from 1:4.
  • To the church in Philadelphia the descriptor is “the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” from 1:18.
  • To the church in Laodicea the descriptor is “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation” 1:5-6.

When we look back to what John is quoting in 3:1, he’s not saying that God consists of seven spirits but that, per 1:4, there are seven spirits before his throne. He owns these spirits. For example, if I said “the three cars of Tim” that doesn’t mean I consist of three cars but that I own them or I have charge of them.

God is spirit (John 4:24) and the third person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4). God does not consist of seven spirits. He has seven spirits before his throne. In this context, these seven spirits are probably the seven churches because ‘seven’ figures so prominently in the first three chapters and it is clear that in every other reference it is referring to the churches.

We didn’t have to “yeah but” the text, just take a moment to look at it.

What’s in a Title?

You know those titles of the Psalms? The ones that are usually in small caps? Did you know that those are part of the original Hebrew text? There isn’t a known edition of the Hebrew scriptures that doesn’t have those titles so we should assume they are inspired along with the rest of the text.

I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up
and have not let my foes rejoice over me.
O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
O LORD, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. (Psalm 30:1–3)

The title of Psalm 30 is, as best as we can determine, inspired. Psalm 30 is written by David or about David (“of” can mean either) and it is about the dedication of the temple. David had died before Solomon built or dedicated the temple (1 Kings 2:10) so this may be a song David had written to be sung at that event. Or it is written to describe David and his relationship to the dedication.

Now, David didn’t rise from the dead and attend the dedication of the temple (Acts 2:29), but David and the temple mean more in the Bible story than they do solely in the Psalms and so they mean more in the Psalms than they do at first read there.

There is a Biblical promise of David’s son who would build the temple and reign forever (2 Sam. 7). In one sense, that was Solomon since he built the temple. But in another sense it isn’t since he didn’t reign forever.

The connection between the temple and resurrection in the New Testament is clear:

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19–22)

The Psalm goes on in verse 9:

What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?

Again, death is involved but the question the Psalmist asks is if there was to be profit in his death. Will the dust praise God? Again, Jesus gives the answer:

As [Jesus] was drawing near [to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey]—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of his disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” And some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Luke 19:36–40)

Jesus is heading to his execution, his crucifixion. His death, complete but not final, will ensure that the rocks and the dust they will become don’t need to praise God. His death will draw in people who will praise God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).

Nothing to Get Excited Over

Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?” And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.” And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” And David answered the priest, “Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?” So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. – 1 Sam 21:1-6

One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:23-28

1d7bd08ee712de8472b99179512e3978Who gave David the bread, Ahimelech or Abiathar? Did Jesus get it wrong? Or did Mark? Or did the author of Samuel? Is this one of those supposedly numerous errors in the Bible?

Really, we need to slow down a bit and read what Jesus actually said before we get too excited or upset. Jesus didn’t say that Abiathar gave David the bread, he said that in the days when Abiathar was the high priest David ate the bread of the presence. That doesn’t conflict with 1 Samuel at all. Ahimelech was the priest on duty when David came looking for food. Abiathar was the high priest but that didn’t mean that he was at the tabernacle at that time. He had specific duties and at appointed times he would be there. But he wasn’t when David came.

But the panic isn’t over yet. In 1 Samuel what happened next is that Saul found out what the priest had done for David and he slaughtered them. Only Abiathar, the son of Ahimelech survived and escaped (1 Sam 22:20). But how could Abiathar be the high priest and the son of a serving priest? Actually, it could happen. It isn’t clear at this point in Israel’s history how a high priest was chosen. If you look in the Law (Exodus through Deuteronomy) you’ll find that the term “high priest” is only used a few times in Numbers. There is no biblical criteria for who would be the high priest so it could have been Ahimelech’s son. Or another priest name Abiathar. Again, not a big deal.

UPDATE: Andrew Wilson published an excellent analysis of this “discrepancy” in the September 2015 edition of Christianity Today. You can read it here, if you have a subscription. If you don’t, here’s the bottom line of his handling of the verse:

Jesus is David, the true king of Israel, and the disciples are his allies. But they aren’t the only characters in the story…Abiathar? He is Eli’s great-great-grandson, the last surviving member of the old priestly line, whose eventual removal from the priesthood would prove true God’s word through Samuel (1 Kings 2:27).

All of this means that Jesus mentions Abiathar rather than Ahimelech for good reason. He is saying, “I am David, these are my men, and the current priests are Abiathar. They are in charge now, but in just a few years their priesthood will end, just like Abiathar’s. And my kingdom will be established, just like David’s.”

What do you think? That seems to fit even better than my interpretation. Actually, Wilson handily dismissed the approach I mentioned here pretty easily in his article.

Inventory Issues


There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets that Moses put there at Horeb, where the LORD made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of Egypt. (2 Chron 5:10)

[T]he ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. (Hebrews 9:4)

This has got to be one of the many contradictions in the Bible we hear about, right? Not really. It is a contradiction only if you read the Bible flatly. By ‘flatly’ I mean if you read it as if it were one book written at one time by one author. That is, if you expect it to be written the way humans tend to write. The reason this is not a contradiction is because there are two different authors writing at two different times, in two different languages, relating actual history from two different time periods. That describes writing that is much less flat, much more nuanced, don’t you think?

The chronicler, writing in Hebrew probably around 400BC, is telling about when Solomon built the first temple and brought the ark into it. The author of Hebrews, writing in Greek probably around 60AD, is talking about the tabernacle just after it was completed. The time difference between these two events is about 500 years and an awful lot happened in those 400 and something years. To understand the inventory problem with the ark, we need to look at its history with an emphasis on what went inside it.

IMAGE-Ten-Commandments-Tablet-Movie-Prop-Christies-2001It all starts in Exodus 25 where God tells Moses how to build the ark. In verse 16, God says, “And you shall put into the ark the testimony that I shall give you.” The “testimony” here is the Ten Commandments that God wrote on tables of stone. They were placed inside the ark once it was constructed.

URNThe first thing listed in Hebrews is the urn of manna. In Exodus 16 God gave Israel manna six days a week. It was a miraculous food that formed on the ground overnight. Any manna that was kept overnight spoiled except on Friday since Saturday is the Sabbath and none was given. In verse 33 Aaron is told, “Take a jar, and put an omer of manna in it, and place it before the LORD to be kept throughout your generations.” Now, at this point, the ark hasn’t been constructed yet; as a matter of fact, God hadn’t even told Moses that an ark is to be constructed. Exodus 16 is about six weeks before Mount Sinai where God verbally gives Israel the Ten Commandments and another month of so after that till he gives the instructions for the ark. At this point, the jar was kept but not in the ark.

53271_almond_tree_smThe next thing in the list from Hebrews is the rod of Aaron that budded. In Numbers 16, the sons of Korah challenged Moses’ and Aaron’s authority. God’s response was to send a fire to consume the rebels who stood before him and to open the earth under their tents. It wasn’t Moses and Aaron they were ultimately challenging, it was God and the rebellion didn’t stop once Korah’s children were gone. The next day the people complained along the same lines, “You have killed the people of the LORD.” (Num 16:41) In order to authenticate who God had chosen to lead Israel, Moses took a staff from the leader of every tribe and he put them in the tabernacle. The next morning they found that Aaron’s staff had budded and sprouted almonds. In Numbers 17:10 God directed Moses that to put “the staff of Aaron before the testimony”.

So each item that Hebrews mentioned was associated with the “testimony” in some way. Does that mean it was inside the ark? Clearly the tablets of the Ten Commandments were in there, they were called “the testimony” to begin with. Aaron’s rod was to be “before the testimony” which could mean that it sat in front of the ark but that seems a bit odd. There wasn’t a table in there to set the rod on and “the testimony” (i.e. the tablets) were inside the ark. If the rod was before the testimony it could have easily been inside the ark. Why not?

Likewise, the jar of manna was to be “before the LORD“. God’s presence was between the cherubim on top of the ark so the best place for the jar would be there. Again, there was no table to keep this stuff on so placing it inside the ark makes sense. Also, consider that they had to pack all this stuff up and move it around quite a bit before they came to the Promised Land. It would just make sense to put it in the ark.

But that leaves us with an inventory problem when we get to Second Chronicles since “there was nothing in the ark except the two tablets that Moses put there.” We don’t know for sure what happened to the other things since the Bible doesn’t say anything about them but there are hints. If we track the history of the ark in the Bible we see some opportunities for things to get lost.

"Could someone set up Dagon the all powerful again?"

“Could someone set up Dagon the all powerful again?”

Surprisingly, there is no mention of the ark being lost in Judges. The people were so superstitious at that time that you’d figure they’d would have drug it out all the time. Nope, they were able to hold off losing it till 1 Samuel 4. When the Philistines came out against them, they pulled out the ark like it was an idol or something. The Philistines captured it in battle. However, things didn’t go so well for the Philistines. They put the ark in the temple of their god Dagon who kept falling over in front of it. Then the people broke out in boils so they decided it would be best to return the ark to Israel. When they did, some Israelites decided to take look inside (1 Sam 6:19 NIV, KJV, ASV). If Israel decided to take a peek, I’ll bet the Philistines did too. After all, for the Philistines it was the spoils of war. When the Philistines consulted their priests and diviners to try to figure out what to do with the ark, their wisemen told them, “do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering” (1 Sam 6:3). That could mean “empty” as in “without a guilt offering” or it could mean “we took stuff out and it has become obvious that we’re guilty and need to make an offering.” A golden urn? There’s some cash value. A stick that budded (assuming it was still spouting)? Sounds like magic! Keep that! Big old stone tablets with Hebrew writing on them? Yeah, leave that.

Years later David would split up the articles of the tabernacle. The tent was at a high place in Gibeon with the bronze alter but David moved the ark to Jerusalem (2 Chr 1:4-5) and he put it in a tent he’d had built for it (1 Chr 15:1). When the contents are mentioned in 2 Chronicles 5, we’re down to just the tablets. And it is interesting that the author would mention specifically that there was nothing else in there but the tablets. He might do that in order to confirm, yes, there was nothing else in there, just as it was supposed to be. On the other hand, he could also be commenting that the other stuff had gone missing and all that was left was the tablets.

Do you see how bumpy and nubbley a reading of the Bible has to be? Nothing flat about it! The Bible spans a great deal of time and so you can’t read it like a column in a magazine where all the pertinent history is gathered together for you. You have to take a lot more into consideration. God is bigger than a magazine editor and his story spans generations. Expect his writing, both in history and in the Bible to be huge.

Not A Handbook for Life

We can open our Bibles for all sorts of odd reasons–as a religious duty, an attempt to earn God’s favor, or thinking that it serves as a moral self-help guide, a manual of handy tips for effective religious lives. That idea is actually one main reason so many feel discouraged in their Bible-reading. Hoping to find quick lessons for how they should spend today, people find instead a genealogy, or a list of various sacrifices. And how could page after page of histories, descriptions of the temple, instructions to priests, affect how I rest, work and pray today?

But when you see that Christ is the subject of all the Scriptures, that he is the Word, the Lord, the Son who reveals his Father, the promised Hope, the true Temple, the true Sacrifice, the great High Priest, the ultimate King, then you read, not so much asking, “What does this mean for me, right now?” but “What do I learn here of Christ?” Knowing that the Bible is about him and not me means that, instead of reading the Bible obsessing about me, I can gaze on him. And as through the pages you get caught up in the wonder of his story, you find your heart strangely pounding for him in a way you never would have if you treated the Bible as a book about you. – Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity, 82-83

A Study in Cherubim

What is a cherub? If have even heard of the word, the first thing that comes to mind when you hear it is most likely chubby babies with wings. That’s because Raphael painted them that way in his “Sistine Madonna”:

And now they are everywhere looking all cute. You just want to pinch those fat little cheeks, don’t you? Except, that isn’t what a cherub is. So what really is a cherub? Ezekiel saw some and here’s part of how he described them:

[T]hey had a human likeness, but each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot. And they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another…As for the likeness of their faces, each had a human face. The four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. And their wings were spread out above. Each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies…As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving to and fro among the living creatures. And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. (Ezekiel 1:5-14)

The reason you know these are cherubim is because Ezekiel says so in 10:20, “These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the Chebar canal; and I knew that they were cherubim.”

They’re not supposed to be cute, they are fearsome. God put one at the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were evicted (Genesis 3:24). There were two cherubim on the top of the mercy seat (Exodus 7:89) and just like in Ezekiel’s vision, the continuing reference to the cherubim is that the Lord is seated above them.

So about all Raphael got right was the wings, just not enough of them. Perhaps. The way Ezekiel saw them, they had six wings, but consider how they’re described in 1 Kings:

In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other…And the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. (1 Kings 6:23-24, 27)

These cherubim have two wings. Now lest you get the impression that these were uninspired, artistic representations, don’t forget that Bezalel and Oholiab were inspired to construct the tabernacle including the ark (Exodus 31:1-11). They didn’t make up what the cherubim looked like and when Solomon had the temple constructed, they had the ark with the cherubim. No reason they would make the look different if they had a model right there.

So what do we gain from this study of cherubim? I think there are a handful of things.

Ezekiel saw a vision. When prophets see visions, things mean something but not necessarily that cherubim are covered with eyes and have four wings. As we’ve seen elsewhere cherubim only have two wings. What Ezekiel’s vision is trying to communicate is that God is all-seeing and that’s why where his throne touches the earth that structure is covered in eyes. God sees. Cherubim are real creatures but the vision Ezekiel got of them was communicating more than their outward appearance. They’re spiritual beings and so their outward appearance is not something physical like ours.

The temple and tabernacle were earthly images of heavenly reality (Hebrews 8) and the same is true of what Ezekiel saw. He saw something true and real in heaven and tried to explain it in earthly terms. That’s what the temple did too. There is something real in heaven and the earthly things show a picture of what that is really like without duplicating it. It can’t be duplicated on earth.

And what is kind of cool is where these two things come together. In Genesis 3 God places a cherubim at the entrance to the garden of Eden to guard the way to the tree of life. But if the cherubim are associated with God’s presence, then God didn’t post a guard and take off. Everywhere else in the scriptures, God’s glory shone above the cherubim. In Genesis 3, the cherubim guarded the way to the Tree of Life but also into God’s presence. In Revelation 21 and 22 the Tree of Life is back and, as you’d expect, it is associated with God’s presence. In Revelation 21:22, John notices that the city that he was shown has no temple, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.” The point is that God dwells with man in this city. In chapter 22 he says that there is a river that flows out of the throne of God through the middle of the street of the city and on either side of it is the Tree of Life. There is no cherubim this time. Everything that is evil has been thrown into the lake of fire and in this city “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Revelation 21:27). There is no need of a guard now.

Endnote: This is not license to spiritualize everything in scripture which is usually the accusation as soon as you say anything like this. No, you have to pay attention to what the author is doing. Visions are not like watching TV where you get live coverage of the event. However, history is history and so when Moses says that Noah built an ark, an ark was built. Ezekiel tells you that he’s seeing a vision, Moses clues you in that he’s recalling historic events. Best to keep them straight. Notice that Moses never described the cherubim in Genesis, he only said that they were there; probably indescribable.

Camping on the Fringe

So this is how he got there:

[Harold] Camping says that because Jesus was crucified on Friday, April 1, 33 AD, and that it takes exactly 365.2422 days for the earth to complete one orbit of the sun, we can conclude that, on April 1, 2011, Jesus was crucified exactly 722,449.07 days ago. Add 51 days to this to get to May 1, and you get a figure of 722,500.07.

Round that down to the nearest integer, and you get 722,500, which is an important number because it is the square of 5 x 17 x 10 . The number five, says Camping, represents atonement. Ten represents completeness, and 17 represents heaven. Multiply all these together – twice – and you get 722,500. Therefore the apocalypse kicks off on Saturday, May 21.

Don’t know why I didn’t see it. Oh, because I don’t read my Bible that way. I take it as a piece of literature that can be read and understood for what it says. Like:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son,but the Father only. – Matthew 24:36

I take that to mean that no one but God the Father knows the date. But please notice that there IS a date. People laugh and scoff at Camping, and rightfully so, but don’t laugh and scoff at Jesus’ return. Camping is wrong even if Jesus shows up tomorrow but don’t miss the fact that he is returning.

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”- 2 Peter 3:1-4

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

I know full well that finding secret codes is a favorite pastime for obsessives, conspiracy-theorists, charlatans with a eye to the main chance, et hoc genus omne [and everything of this kind]; it has been unwittingly satirized in Dan Brown’s blockbusting thriller, The Da Vinci Code. Occasionally, however, a sober critic, paying close attention to a text, will make an interpretive discovery and produce a bona fide ‘code breaking’ work. – Michael Ward, Planet Narnia

Genesis: How’d We Get Here?

We all know what’s in the book of Genesis. We’re familiar with the stories of creation and Noah and Joseph and his coat. But what is Genesis about? Another way to ask the question would be to ask why Moses wrote it. One way to try to determine what a story is about is to track narrative time. How much time passes across how many pages? When narrative time slows down, there is probably something important going on. So take a look at this:

Let me walk you through this. What I did was to pick out the major themes of the book and put them across the top with the chapter divisions. I was surprised to see it line up in pretty neat quarters.

  • Chapters 1-11 introduce God and how he created. They also explain why the world is a mess and show how bad and how far reaching that problem is but they also include the promise that someone will do something about it, the Seed of the Woman.
  • Chapters 12-24 tell us Abraham’s story. God carries his promise forward in one man. The promises to Abraham are a land, a people and a blessing to the nations.
  • Chapters 25-36 cover the lives of Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Isaac is covered very briefly and the majority of the section is spent on Jacob. We meet Jacob’s sons.
  • Chapters 57-50 focus on one of Jacob’s boys, Joseph. He goes in to Egypt as a slave and soon rises to the second in charge of the nation. At the end he’s reunited with his family and they are brought in to Egypt as celebrated guests.

That’s the story in a nutshell. The sections receive pretty much the same amount of paper but consider the bottom line of the chart. The first section takes thousands, maybe millions of years. The next two sections take about 100 years each. But the final one, though equal in length, covers only about 56 years. Moses really slows down and includes a lot of detail in Joseph’s story.

The reason, I suppose, Moses does this is because in Genesis he’s explaining to the Israelites where they came from. He covers how Yahweh created the world and worked to preserve it through Adam, Seth (not Cain), Noah, Shem (not Ham), Abraham, Isaac (not Ishmael), Jacob (not Esau) and Joseph. He spends the most time on Joseph so the Israelites will understand how they came to be in Egypt. Not as a captured people but as honored guests.

This is very interesting. Consider how much the New Testament talks about Joseph versus how much it talks about Abraham.  Joseph is seldom mentioned whereas Abraham is prevalent in the Gospels and in Paul. So what are we to take from this? We are Christians so we should follow the New Testament. Abraham has more to do with us than Joseph. But then again, Abraham has more to do with Joseph too. If it weren’t for Abraham, there would be no Joseph. I think all of this shows just how important Abraham is to biblical theology.  Joseph explains how Israel got to be where they were, Jacob explains how they came to be but Abraham offers an explanation of why they are who and where they are. And he offers the same explanation to us: And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – Galatians 3:29.

A Sabbath Life

This weekend I heard part of a This American Life episode. I think it was about competitions or something. The segment I heard was from a Jewish guy telling about a “Blessing Bee” he was in when he attended an Orthodox Jewish school. What was fascinating to me was to hear him talk about the Sabbath at his house. I don’t remember all the details but I remember him repeating a few times that his father would get drunk and sing Sabbath songs. He also detailed what the Rabbis had determined was appropriate to do on the Sabbath. You couldn’t turn on a light because the filament got hot and that was kindling a fire and that was work. The list of do’s and don’t’s went on from there.

When I was first introduced to Reformed Christianity, one of the issues I had to wrestle with was the Sabbath. The Reformed hermeneutic is that if a command is not repealed, it is still binding. The Ten Commandments are viewed as the moral law that is written on everyone’s heart and is applicable to Christians today. Including the Sabbath. But the Sabbath comes to us not from Moses but through Christ and so it isn’t the Jewish Saturday Sabbath but a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus on Sunday. We also call it “the Lord’s day.” The question I had to wrestle with was what the Sabbath looks like in the New Covenant. As I discussed it with other Reformed Christians, there were a variety of opinions on it.

What the two paragraphs above have in common is their focus on what we can and cannot do on the Sabbath. In this post, I’m not going to defend the perpetuity of the Sabbath. What I want to look at is more of the Bible passages that speaks to the Sabbath than just what work we may or may not do on it. It is surprising study.

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed. – Exodus 23:12

We could easily do what many others (myself included) have done and focus so strongly on the first half of this verse, trying to decide what constitutes “work” and “rest” (can I play flag football or run on the Sabbath?), that we forget the last half.  Notice who also is to be refreshed by our ceasing from labor; the son of the servant woman and the alien. Essentially, the “least of these.” It isn’t entirely about you. Yes, you rest, but you don’t do nothing, you do justice. Think I’m reading too much into this? Consider Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord:
“Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
Blessed is the man who does this,
and the son of man who holds it fast,
who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” – Isaiah 56:1-2

Did you notice what is said about keeping the Sabbath? “Blessed is the man who does this…who keeps the Sabbath…[keeping] his hand from doing any evil.” And don’t abandon the context when you read this either. We can focus on ‘righteousness’ and think about obeying the law and then we’re back in the rut of “can I cook on the Sabbath?”. That’s not an unworthy question but what about the first thing commanded “keep justice”? That isn’t about watching football rather than taking a nap, it is about caring for the poor and needy. It is about defending the widow and the orphan. That is part of Sabbath keeping too. Go and read the rest of that chapter and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Or consider the context of Isaiah 58’s injunction to “call the Sabbath a delight.” Right before it true fasting is tied to abandoning wickedness and letting the oppressed go free. In the next chapter God chides Israel for their evil and bloodshed. The Sabbath is not only what we can and cannot do on Sunday, it is about a life lived resting in God and not performing evil. We cannot go about abusing or ignoring the needs of the poor on six days and then rest on Sunday and think we’re pleasing Jesus. A “Sabbath life” includes refreshing the servant and alien as well as our own resting.

This is why Jesus had such little tolerance for the Pharisees and their quibbles about the Sabbath.  In Matthew 12 he shows how disinterested he was in whether it was ‘work’ to heal on the Sabbath. Healing the poor man was what it was all about! It wasn’t Jesus showing that he could ignore the Sabbath or that he was on the spot rewriting the rules. He was fulfilling the Sabbath by doing what the Sabbath called for: mercy to the poor.

That doesn’t mean that we should go work in a soup kitchen every Sunday, but I think it does mean that if we are concerned for the Sabbath, we should be concerned for the poor, that they may be refreshed as well.