six days is the longest you can go

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Genesis 2:1-3
I know of a young Orthodox Jewish couple, formerly Christians, who cited this accusation against Christianity as one of the reasons they converted to Judaism: “Why do Christians say they believe in the ten commandments, but functionally only keep nine of them? Why do Christians act as if it is acceptable to disregard the fourth commandment by desecrating the Sabbath?”

The fourth commandment is this:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11
Although I believe the couple’s conversion to Judaism was a lamentable step backward, I see their point. Many modern Christians treat the observance of the Sabbath as a Mosaic law that the New Covenant annuls, in the same category as not eating pork. This attitude, combined with our general cultural engorgement on entertainment, our addiction to busy-ness, and our discomfort with silence and stillness, means that for most of us the fourth commandment amounts to nothing more than an hour of church in the morning, if that.

We forget that God created the Sabbath in the beginning, before the entrance of sin or the giving of the law. He instituted the pattern of the seventh day’s specialness from the start; even Adam and Eve in Eden knew about it. We forget its origin, and we also forget its loveliness. The Sabbath is a truly beautiful thing, and it is precious to God. We neglect it to our own loss and shame.

The Sabbath compels us to remember God. God pointed this out in Exodus 31, telling Moses,

You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.” Exodus 31:13
The Sabbath is a sign and a reminder of the fact that God is the Sanctifier, the One who makes his people holy. The Israelites were designated a holy people because of their special connection to the one holy God. In the same way, Christians are “sanctified by faith in [Jesus]” (Acts 26:18), made holy by their connection to the holiness of Christ. It is “in the sanctification of the Spirit” (1 Peter 1:2), in the Holy Spirit’s action in the hearts of Christians to increasingly conform them to the example of Christ, that believers witness and experience God as Sanctifier in living color.

The Sabbath exists as a weekly signpost to the fact that God is; that he is holy; that he relates to mankind; that he mercifully sanctifies his people; that he alone deserves all glory, praise, and thanks. With the Sabbath in your life, six days is the longest you can go without being forcefully reminded of God and of his action in your life and in you.

Christians typically regard Sunday, rather than Saturday, as the Sabbath day because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday (a practice originating at the beginning of the church). Thus, the Sabbath exists as a year-round celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. With the Sabbath in your life, six days is the longest you can go without being forced to consider the objective fact of Jesus’ divinity, the New Covenant identity which defines you, and the resurrected world to which you are headed.

For if Joshua had given [the Israelites] rest, God would have not spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Hebrews 4:8-10

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Romans 4:4-8

To enter a relationship with God through faith in Jesus is to enter rest. Jesus does not save us through our works – and faith is not a work, either. He saves us through faith, the best definition of which may well be: to lay your weary soul down in the blood-stained hands of the crucified Son of God, and rest. Rest from working and striving after the wind. Such is the faith which God counts as righteousness.

In one sense, the entire Christian life is work: pursuing greater holiness, greater knowledge of God, greater love, greater spiritual stature. In another sense, all of it is rest: receiving the Father’s love, receiving Jesus, receiving the Holy Spirit, accepting grace through faith.

“Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.” The whole Jewish pattern of living revolved around the Sabbath, the holy day of rest which they understood as belonging in a special way to God. In the same way, with the Sabbath in your life, six days is longest you can go without being forced to rest from your useless striving and working for God’s love. It’s the longest you can go without being forced to savor the free forgiveness of the cross.

The Sabbath designates the rest of faith. It also foreshadows the rest of heaven, that blessed ceasing from labor and suffering which awaits those declared righteous through faith. To many of us who live sedentary, comfortable lives, the idea of heaven as rest may seem almost anti-climactic. To the rest of humanity, there is hardly a sweeter thought in the world.

If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.
The mouth of the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 58:13-14
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repent, believe, repeat

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15

The Bible’s criteria for salvation are beautifully simple: repent, and believe. No mystic rituals, no secret info, no complex systems of moral progression. Simply: turn away from sin, toward God, and trust in Jesus, and what he has done, as your salvation. Repentance and faith are in fact two sides of the same coin, and one does not come without the other.

Repentance means reorienting one’s life, from sin to righteousness, darkness to light, life to death, idols to the living God.  Jesus told Paul at the beginning of Paul’s ministry, “I have appeared to you for this purpose… to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Repentance was the major theme of the Old Testament prophets. For centuries, they pleaded with the people: repent! Your sin is evil in God’s eyes! Do not provoke him any longer. Come back to the God who loves you; humble yourselves and he will receive you. Repent and find life. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Their audiences, however, did not often listen. Israel excelled in showy religion and superficial repentance, imitating all the outward signs without any of the inner change. God said, “…this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” (Isaiah 29:13) Israel’s repentance was fake because they did not often take either the holiness of God, or the kindness of God, to heart.

Recognizing God’s holiness motivates repentance because it shows a person the gravity of their sin and the terribleness of God’s reaction against it. The prophets threatened the judgment of God in order to turn the Israelites back to the covenant they had made with him, drilling into their heads: God hates your corruption, injustice, irreverence, and complacency. If you do not repent, he will judge you for your sin, mightily and terribly. Look at the second chapter of Joel as an example. The first eleven verses outline Joel’s wake up call to Israel, predicting the impending judgment of God.

The prophets, and all the biblical authors, understood that something even more fundamental than the fear of God’s judgment motivates heart-level repentance, however. Paul said in Romans 2:4, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” The following twenty-one verses of Joel 2 describe the kindness of God, beginning with a character description: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” The most stunning display of God’s kindness is at the cross, the place at which the man who is God died for his enemies (Romans 5:6-11). The message of that story brings real change – and it really starts to mean something when the first point, about God’s holiness, is properly grasped.

Faith is the partner of repentance. Faith means trusting in something – Someone – outside oneself for rescue and change. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith looks out and up for forgiveness purchased by another person’s sacrifice and righteousness earned by another person’s effort – that other person being Jesus Christ. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Faith does not trust itself. It doesn’t trust its own performance or effort. Faith rests – really rests – in the completed work of Jesus the Savior.

Faith learns from repentance the pervasive presence of sin in the heart and the total inadequacy of “good” deeds and “good” attitudes. Much of repentance is seeing sin for what it is, dragging it out of foggy darkness into penetrating daylight (Ephesians 5:6-14). That knowledge, though, if not coupled with faith which finds its security in Jesus alone, is devastating. Knowledge of our sin is always meant, without fail, to bring us back to simple gratitude for and wonder at the cross of Christ.

Conversion means: repent, believe. Christians too often forget that the rest of their lives follow the same pattern: repent, believe, repent, believe, repeat, repeat, repeat.

As the Holy Spirit opens a person’s spiritual eyes to their own sin more and more, that person will learn to repent weekly, daily, hourly. Life as a Christian is constant war against sin (complacency and apathy so often being the very sins in need of battle and repentance, of course). Turning, re-turning, re-turning from sin, meanwhile always resting, always secure, always satisfied, in the complete sufficiency of Jesus and his cross. That’s your life, Christian. There is so much grace in it. God does not give up on us. Until death or Christ’s return, the battle does not stop – but then neither does the rest.

lessons from the psalms

Of any single book of the Bible, the book of Psalms is perhaps the most quoted, most sung, most prayed, and most memorized. This would be no surprise to its authors. The psalter (the book of “praises” in Hebrew) was the hymnal and book of common prayer for ancient Israel. From Moses straight through to the closing of the Old Testament canon, Israelite believers of all kinds cried out to God through the writing of the psalms.

The psalms contain the full range of the spiritual life of ancient Israel, from overwhelming joy to impassioned sorrow, bristling confidence to crippling insecurity, abandoned worship to withdrawn confusion. No one would call this people Stoic, unemotional, or detached – neither should it ever be said of Christians. The psalmists never thought of the God they worshiped as a distant, irrelevant old man in the sky: he was the center of their universe.

The honesty of the psalms is breathtaking. Sometimes I don’t understand the Bible. Sometimes I get disillusioned with church. Sometimes I feel afraid of God. Sometimes I wonder if everything I believe is just a myth, if I really am the self-deluded hypocrite my culture says I am. The psalms, thank God, give me the freedom and the precedent to present these very fears and doubts to God, and to do so with full disclosure. The psalmists’ heartbroken cries of “how long?” and “where are you?” surface again and again. God does not demand that I clean myself up before I come to him. I am poor and needy for mercy and he knows this. The blood of Jesus alone presents me as acceptable to God. As one redeemed and purchased by this blood, I can, I must, be honest and vulnerable before him. He beckons me to come as I am, simply entrusting myself to his grace – amazing.

The psalms do not deny the deep “valleys” of the believer’s life. Rather, they validate these valleys, these times when life feels dark and dangerous, these “dark nights of the soul.” Are you familiar with the “regions dark and deep,” whether spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise, of which the psalmist speaks in Psalm 88:6? Be comforted. God is familiar with your suffering; he chose to give it a voice in his book some three thousand years ago. He gives it a dignity which no other system of thought quite manages to do.

As amazing and satisfying as the honesty of the psalms is, however, there is something even more. What is truly incredible, and unusual, about these ancient prayers is that there is suffering – with hope. Doubt, with trust. A desperate feeling of abandonment with a resolute confidence in the promise of God’s presence. Over and over the psalmists say: “God, I do not understand what is happening. It looks as if you have abandoned us. I feel lonely, angry, hated, afraid – and yet I know who you are. I know the promises you have made to us. I know you have redeemed my life and I know you are good. Therefore I will praise you still.” That is what living faith looks like. Faith does not deny what it sees and feels or stifle its thoughts and emotions. It does just the opposite. Faith confronts what it sees with what it knows to be true, and decides to find rest in the promises of God.

When the fear and doubt come, which they surely do and surely will, I must also remind myself of the truth I know. I know how Jesus Christ changed my life. I know the testimonies of others. I know that his word alone speaks the words of life and the message of redemption. I remember what God has done for me and I remember what I know of him – and that is enough. I do not need all the answers, as much as I may want them. All I need is to cling to my God, my refuge and my strength. As many times as the cry of “how long” can be heard echoing through its chapters, the true chorus of the psalms is “hallelujah” – praise Yahweh.

If you are not familiar with the book of Psalms, dive in. Read them, pray them, mull them over. Some are not easy to understand, but all of them are wonderfully real. Come to God with empty hands, a broken heart, a guilty conscience; lay these before him and find rest.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:25-26

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God. Psalm 43:5

Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you. Psalm 116:7