In the previous posts in this series we examined the purposes for which God gave his Law to Israel. Today we look into the actual or final goal for implementing those laws.
I still remember a major point of a sermon I heard back in the year 2000. That was one of the last times my wife and I ever attended an established church. The preacher read the account of the man stoned for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. His point was that this occurred under the covenant of legalism and that Moses was legalistic. He condemned God’s Law because he did not understand it. He pitted grace against law and thus fell into lawlessness. Friends whom we had been home-churching with also attended that service, saw us at the end of it, and exclaimed, “That was a great message, wasn’t it?” My wife and I just looked at them in amazement and walked away. We never saw our old friends or that church again. In fact we moved 250 miles away from the entire area within a year of that church meeting.
But, why did God command Moses to stone (kill) the man caught picking up sticks on the Sabbath? Why was this a capital offense within the Law of God? Was God offended? Did this man snub his LORD and thus bring about his own execution? What does Jesus say?
23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 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: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of[d] Abiathar the high priest, and atethe 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?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man,not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28, ESV)
Jesus makes it very clear that God instituted the Sabbath for man’s sake, not his. So, what’s the big deal about a man picking up sticks on the Sabbath? You may assume that he was picking up sticks to keep his forge going so that he could continue his business of repairing metal implements or that he was gathering wood to keep his family from freezing. It makes no difference. According to God’s law regarding the Sabbath this man was “working” and the Sabbath laws forbade men from working in Israel. So why did God demand his death?
The reason for the death penalty requirement is that the Sabbath represents (typifies or prophetically points to) man’s ultimate goal of coming to rest in and unity with God. This story reveals that a person who fails to obey the Sabbath will in fact die, but the death in view prophetically is the death of the soul. The New Testament calls this death “the second death.” The man caught picking up sticks suffered “the third death,” physical death, as his immediate penalty. The story teaches that so long as a person fails to enter God’s rest then he must yet take part in the second death, the lake of fire. The story of the man picking up sticks on the Sabbath, like all Biblical stories, is a parable, a story which portrays spiritual truth. This story prophetically reveals that a person who fails to come into God’s rest will die the second death, the death of his soul. This is the story’s primary purpose.
Anyone, therefore, who would call Moses legalistic and denounce God’s Law as mere legalisms does not understand the Word of God. All of the Law served and still serves a purpose in God’s plan. I have tediously taught in past posts that God does not expect or intend Christians to observe any of the Old Testament laws except his moral laws which are summarized in the Ten Commandments and later condensed by Jesus in the one law, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Today I am not suggesting that you begin to obey the Old Testament laws concerning the Sabbath with exacting detail. If you want to pick up sticks on Sunday (or Saturday if you regard Saturday as your Sabbath day), then go ahead. But if picking up sticks is part of your regular work or job, then I would advise you to rest on the Sabbath and do your work the other six days of the week, for I believe that honoring the Sabbath is still relevant.
Honoring the Sabbath remains relevant to Christians because it expresses our trust in God. I related in a post a week or two ago how I began to take a Sabbath during law school 27 years ago. By faith I trusted God that I could study enough in the other six days and I did. Now I trust God that I can prepare for trials and do all the things I need to to sustain my law practice in six days. But (and this is a big but!) if I discover a witness I need to interview for a trial that I have the day after my Sabbath, I will work on the Sabbath in order to prepare for my case. I have not sinned.
One must always keep in view the purpose of God in creating man and the goal of the Bible with respect to that creation. God created man in his own image and likeness. He could not program man to be perfect for then he would not have possessed a free will. Therefore God planned that man would have to learn to discern good and evil and then willingly choose the good. Faith in Jesus gives a man the initial power to go on to become a “Son of God.” After he comes to faith he needs to begin to exercise his will in order to become conformed to God’s image, the image we see revealed in Christ. A son learns to trust his father. So should we learn to trust our Father in heaven.
Jesus said that God ordained the Sabbath for man’s benefit, not his. He gave us the Sabbath so that we would learn to trust in him for our provision, rest in him for our peace, and ultimately come into oneness with him. We come into oneness with God when our mind, will, and emotions (our soul) becomes totally conformed to his image. This is the reason God implemented such severe punishment for breaking the Sabbath. To break the Sabbath indicates that we have failed to come into rest in God, have failed to trust him, and have, therefore, failed to believe in him. Thus, like almost all Israel we too would fail to enter the promised land of our salvation. God killed the man picking up sticks on the Sabbath to show us that if we do not learn to trust in him and obey his ways, then we too will be killed, but it will not be just our bodies which die this time. Jesus said,
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)