Some years ago I was teaching an adult Sunday school class on Ephesians. When we came to the sixth chapter and to the verse that says, "Children, obey your parents in the Lord," one of the ladies in the class raised her hand.
Her question was “When do I not need to obey my parents?”
Her parents, she explained, had been abusive and and her childhood had been awful. Quite a few in the class sympathized with her, I among them. But when the dust settled we were still left wondering - "When do I not need to obey." None of of us, including myself recognized the problem with the question.
The problem is that WHAT MUST I do is an Old Covenant question. It is the question that the Pharisees asked – and answered in great detail. But despite their attention to details, they failed to achieve righteousness.
HOW MAY I? is the question that arises from the heart of those who live under the New Covenant. How may I obey/honor my parents - despite the fact that they might be less than ideal parents - is the question.
In the catechism we have been learning about the law - the Ten Commandments. The catechism asks: what are we required to do.
That is an Old Covenant question.
(Strictly speaking, it is a question that might be asked of one who is not yet included by faith in the New Covenant, for the law is intended to expose sin and to lead us to Christ. It is not intended to regulate the life of someone under the New Covenant.)
I’d like to suggest that the question really ought to be: HOW MAY I KEEP THE SABBATH?
That would be the New Covenant question.
How we understand the Law and the Sabbath depends upon the context of the Covenant, Old or New.
In Hebrews the author explains the New Covenant in contrast to the first Covenant. (We often refer to the first covenant as the Old Covenant.) He says of the first Covenant that it was inadequate to achieve what God desired. The faults were that the law was not internal and that the sacrifices were insufficient.
The solution to those faults was for God to write the law (the rule of God) upon the heart and to provide a sacrifice that was sufficient forever. That is the New Covenant.
What was the Old Covenant?
Strictly speaking, the first Covenant was an agreement with Israel that promised God’s protection of Israel in the land he was giving them. It provided Israel with laws to govern their lives and a provision of forgiveness when those laws were broken. That provision was in the sacrificial system of the tabernacle and temple.
The Old Covenant was both the laws and the sacrificial system.
One would not make sense without the other.
The Old Covenant pertained first to national salvation. If Israel kept the covenant, they would enjoy the protection and provision of God in the land.
Gentiles were not included in the Old Covenant unless they became Israelites by adopting the faith of Israel. They would then be partakers in the covenant. That did happen at times.
As pertains to personal salvation, the law revealed in the Torah, exposed sin. And the provision of forgiveness in the sacrifices were the means, through faith in God’s mercy, of salvation. Personal salvation never depended upon keeping the law. Paul says that in Romans:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
Personal salvation was always based on God’s mercy.
In the New Testament a New Covenant is established.
Jesus speaks of that New Covenant as being sealed by his blood (Matthew 26:28).
It continued to be a covenant only with the people of God, Israel, which is called by Paul in Romans 11:16 “the root,” and Gentiles who are joined to Israel. It was not a covenant with all mankind.
In the New Testament Gentiles who turn to the Messiah Jesus are grafted into the family of God (Romans 10,11 esp. 11:17). They partake in the promises and the blessing of the New Covenant.
This New Covenant is both presently in force, confirmed in the sacrifice of Jesus, and a future full reality at the “days coming.” At that time all Israel will be gathered to a renewed faith with Jesus the Messiah at the center. The writer of Hebrews implies this in 8:13 when he writes that “what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
We are still in that transition time between the old and the new as far as the nation of Israel is concerned. (It was to the nation Israel that Jeremiah addressed his message about the New Covenant.)
But for those who are grafted into Israel by faith in Jesus the Messiah and those Jews who are the people of God by faith, that New Covenant is active.
WE ARE NOT UNDER THE OLD COVENANT.
WE ARE LIVING UNDER THE NEW COVENANT.
How is the New Covenant New?
7 For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another. 8 But God found fault with the people and said[b]:
“The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
9 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
The New Covenant is new in that all those who trust in Jesus, who appeal in faith to the blood of Jesus the Messiah, will have forgiveness through the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus. No further sacrifice will ever be necessary.
The New Covenant is also new in that it does something the Old Covenant could not do; It radically changes our lives.
It is the promise that the law, which under the Old Covenant was external, would be written on our hearts and minds (Hebrews 8:10).
It makes us eagerly and willingly subject to the rule of God at a heart level. That is what Hebrews means when it says the law will be written on their minds and hearts. This is so radically transforming that Paul could say that we are new creatures. The old things have passed away, and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17).
We do not live under the Old Covenant.
Living in both Covenants
The promises and provisions of the New Covenant are wonderful and transforming and are available now to every believer. But few live in the full reality of the New Covenant.
We are convinced, of course, that in Jesus we have forgiveness of sin. But we often have difficulty really living in that reality. We live under a cloud of guilt or a sense of failure that cripples us spiritually. It is not that we feel insufficient. (It is true that we are insufficient.) Rather it is that we do not appreciate fully the sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ Jesus for our sin. We do not fully appreciate that sin – sin of the past, of the present and of the future – is forgiven now and forever because of his eternally sufficient sacrifice.
Failing to appreciate the extent of our salvation, we feel that we must plead for his forgiveness or that we must somehow atone for our sin by our contrition when we fail to live as God desires.
That is living under the Old Covenant.
The reality of the New Covenant is that we are already forgiven. We need only renew our trust in that forgiveness, for
“He is faithful [to the covenant] and just [based on the sacrifice of Christ Jesus, God could do no other] to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
We may feel stupid and humbled to have allowed sin by a lapse of faith and by our failure to have walked in the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4 esp. 4). But we need not feel that we are estranged from God or have to earn back his favor. His favor is guaranteed to us in Christ forever because of the eternal sufficiency of his sacrifice.
But there is a second failure. Many Christians fail to live with the law of God written on our hearts. Rather, we too often live in the Old Covenant feeling that we are in some way under the Law, meaning the Ten Commandments. We ask, “what must we do to please God,” and we mean by that “what do the commandments require.” When we do that, we act as though the law is external, as though it is something we must obey in order to please God and something which we feel difficult to obey or feel we are unable to obey. We find ourselves caught in this “we sin daily in word or deed” cycle of defeat that Paul describes in Romans 7 where he writes:
9 "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. …What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”
That state of constant defeat is not what God has designed for us in the New Covenant.
The idea that we sin daily and are doomed to sin daily in word and deed is a remnant of Old Covenant thinking. WE NEED NOT DO SO. If the law of God is written on our hearts and minds we need not do so.
If we “walk in the spirit’ Paul writes, “we will not fulfill the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 8:1-4).
And we may walk in the Spirit – always.
That is a transforming truth. Yet there is extreme reluctance by many Christians to believe that. We look at ourselves and declare ourselves “sinners” and cannot escape that fate.
That is biblically untrue.
Numerous passages tell us that we need not sin. First John 2:1 says,
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”
(John does go on to agree that we do sometimes sin, and reminds us there is the provision of forgiveness when we do sin, but that sinning is not our fate.) Living lives that please God is always the goal and the possibility in Christ.
Paul writes in Galatians 5:16 that
“if we walk in the Spirit we will not fulfill the desires of the sinful nature.”
Not living chained to our dead old nature and its desires is not only possible but is the purpose of the Spirit in us. “Thanks be to God, who delivers me,” Paul writes.
We may serve God in freedom and in the Spirit.
6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:6)
To fail to understand that is to live with one foot in the Old Covenant and one foot in the New. And it is seriously to fall short of all God has provided for us in Christ Jesus.
How Does One Live in the New Covenant?
Since life under the New Covenant is a life of faith, we must believe (trust and act in faith) upon the promises of God. It is a life in which we cease from our own work and rest in God’s work. Simply put, life under the New Covenant is wholly the life of the Spirit lived out in us.
But how difficult it is to commit ourselves to the Spirit! It is so much a part of the thinking of the natural man to believe that progress is made by sweat and effort. But that is not God’s way.
How then may we begin? The simple answer is to ask that God do that work in us. Ask, and surrender to the work of the Spirit. He will do it. He will cause us genuinely to love those things he loves and to abhor those things that displease him. Genuinely. Deeply. Truly.
(And what does please God? We find that in the Word of God as it is illuminated by the Spirit.)
As we do that, we will find a wonderful transformation taking place. Where once we asked what must I do to please God we will find ourselves asking what HOW MAY I please him. We will find ourselves eager to do what the Spirit reveals to us as his will. We will begin to rejoice in the Spirit’s rule in our hearts and lives. We will begin to sense the burden of the law that led only to sin and death lifted from our shoulders and the birth in us of a delight in doing those things that please God. We will find freedom.
Applied to the Sabbath
This new life of the law written upon our hearts and minds does not make us lawless. It brings to the fore the spirit of the law that lies underneath the written law; it looks to the spirit of the law as the true desire of God for us. Jesus said the Law requires that we do not murder. But what God desires is that we are not so much as angry with our brothers and sisters (Matthew 5:22) that we not only do not commit adultery but do not so much as look at another with desire that is inappropriate (Matthew 5:28).
Most of us understand that. And we seek as we immerse ourselves in the Word and attend to the Spirit’s illumination to understand what truly pleases God. The is New Covenant thinking.
But what about the Sabbath? Is it different? Is it the only letter or is there a spirit level as well?
We can get to the spirit level by understanding the biblical instructions and reasons for the Sabbath.
First, the Sabbath is intended to be a blessing.
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2:2,3)
Jesus said the same - that man was not made for the Sabbath but that the Sabbath was made for man (Mk. 2:27).
The Sabbath was not simply an arbitrary rule or test of obedience. (It was not even a law until the Ten Commandments were given to Israel.) Though that was how the Pharisees saw it. Rather it was to be a blessing. God made us to need rest, and he invites us to make rest a part of the pattern of our lives.
So rest is at the heart of the commandment.
But the Sabbath is also described as holy (Genesis 2:3). It was a day to be set aside unto the Lord. It was a day to focus on God as the God of all creation and the God of our lives. And how much we need such a day in our lives! In our hurry and seeking after the things this world offers, in our occupation with the things that will one day pass away, we so often fail to really give God time – or give ourselves time with God.
God gave us such a day as a blessing and invites us to rest and focus on him.
So rest and focus on God is at the heart of the commandment.
The Sabbath did become a commandment later for Israel. The fourth of the Ten Commandments. But it is somewhat different from the rest.
The Bible calls the Sabbath a sign of a true God follower.
And the Lord said to 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. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. (Exodus 31 12-14)
It was uniquely and directly connected to the Law which was part of the Old Covenant (the Old Covenant was both the laws and the sacrifices), the agreement between Israel and God. It was not a commandment given to any who were not part of the Nation of Israel. Keeping the Sabbath was a sign of that relationship under the Old Covenant.
So under the New Covenant when the rule of God is written on our hearts,
The focus is upon is the eager and willing identification with God as a true worshiper.
But there is one more thing.The Sabbath was a picture of Salvation rest. (Hebrews 4)
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news [the gospel of God’s mercy] came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, (Hebrews 4:1-3)
And later the writer of Hebrews adds:
There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:9-11)
So the one thing most needful is to rest in God’s work by faith.
Are you resting in God’s work of Salvation provided for you in Jesus Christ?
That may may leave us feeling unsatisfied. The question of how to keep hasn't been specifically answered.
So how shall I observe the Sabbath?
Should I keep the traditional Sabbath, the seventh day as required in the Old Covenant?
Should I observe Sunday, the Lord's Day, as the first century church began to do and as Christians have done since?
Paul writes this:
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. (Romans 14:5,6)
Whatever you do,
whatever the Spirit writes on your heart to do,
DO IT UNTO THE LORD.
God invites us to a place of great blessing and rest.
ENJOY IT. ENJOY HIM.