Why does the book of Kings give so much more attention to Solomon’s palace than to the temple?

Q. Is it strange that in the book of Kings, Solomon took seven years to build God’s temple (in essence, Yahweh’s house, a place where heaven and earth met) but spent thirteen years building his own house? Logically I would expect him to spend more time building God’s temple, but the book offers more description, detail, and attention to his house compared to the temple. Is this strange, or we are learning of how God actually truly blessed him abundantly, or this is bringing our attention more to the human condition?

Actually, the book of Kings devotes far more attention to the temple than to Solomon’s palace. But I can understand how you got a different impression. The book first describes how Solomon took seven years to build the temple. Then, relatively quite briefly, it relates how Solomon built his own palace, taking thirteen years to complete it. (He may have been working on both projects at the same time; in other words, the thirteen years for the palace didn’t necessarily begin only after the seven years for the temple were over.)

The book of Kings then returns to the temple, describing its furnishings at great length, in a passage that parallels the description of the earlier construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness. (You may have gotten the impression that these were the furnishings of Solomon’s palace instead, because the book introduces the palace but then returns to describe the temple.)

In one representative English translation, the description of the temple’s construction and furnishings takes over 1,800 words, while Solomon’s palace is described in less than 300 words. Just a bit later in the book, as Solomon’s reign is being summarized, there’s a further description of his throne and some of the furnishings of his palace, but that takes less than 200 more words.

The temple gets even more attention if we count the description of how it  was dedicated when the ark of the covenant was brought into it. That involves nearly another 2,000 words. So the focus is really very much on the temple as a dwelling place for God and as a center for worship that will draw in people from all nations. And I think that reflects the priorities of the biblical authors.

An artist’s interpretation of Solomon’s temple. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

 

Did Jesus only receive the Holy Spirit at his baptism?

Q. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born. Why did Jesus only receive the Holy Spirit at his baptism? (Was the Holy Spirit transferred to him by John the Baptist laying hands on him, the way “the Spirit was given by the laying on of the apostles’ hands” in the book of Acts?)

First, it is true that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born. The angel Gabriel promised this to his father Zechariah when he told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. And we get a very interesting indication of it from when John was still in his mother’s womb: Mary came to visit Elizabeth while she was expecting Jesus herself, and Elizabeth reported, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” John knew, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that the Messiah, still unborn, and his mother had come to visit!

However, I’m not so sure that Jesus himself only received the Holy Spirit when he was baptized. When Isaiah announces the birth of the Messiah—”A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit”—he immediately adds, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him.” This does not suggest a delay between the Messiah being born and the Spirit coming upon him. The report that Luke gives of Jesus’ early years suggests that God was present in his life in a special way right from the start: “The child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.” One part of the manuscript tradition even says, “The child grew and became strong in spirit.” While this is not considered the most reliable reading, it does reflect the sense of the passage, which conveys that Jesus was filled with special qualities indicating God’s presence from the time he was born.

Indeed, if Jesus did not have the manifest presence of God in his life, it’s hard to see how John the Baptist, Simeon, and Anna would have recognized him as an unborn child and as a baby. They were all godly and Spirit-filled, but they “had to have something to work with,” so to speak—their spiritual discernment needed something spiritual to discern! I believe that this was the presence of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ life.

So then what was going on at Jesus’ baptism, if it wasn’t the first time the Holy Spirit came upon him and filled him? I think the visible descent of the Spirit from heaven to alight on Jesus was mean to be a sign that showed he was the Messiah. As John the Baptist said, as he bore witness to Jesus’ identity, “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

The visible descent of the Spirit, along with the voice from heaven, also provided confirmation to Jesus of his own identity as the Messiah. In one of the churches I served as a pastor there was a man who liked to ask, “What did Jesus know, and when did he know it?” What he meant was that unless Jesus was born knowing everything—in which case he wouldn’t have had a normal human brain and he wouldn’t have shared our human condition—there had to have been a time when he came to know that he was the Messiah. Most interpreters of the gospels agree that Jesus understood definitively at his baptism that this was his role. So it wasn’t so much that Jesus received the Spirit at his baptism as that he received his vocation then, through the Spirit’s manifestation.

As for the connection between receiving the Spirit and the laying on of hands, typically in the book of Acts an apostle or other person commissioned by God will specifically say that they are conveying the Spirit when they lay on hands. For example, Ananias said to the man who would become known as the apostle Paul, as he laid hands on him, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” There’s no record in the gospels of John the Baptist saying any such thing to Jesus at his baptism, so I don’t think we should conclude that this is what happened then.

By the way, I also don’t believe that the laying on of hands is necessary for a person to receive the Holy Spirit. Rather, in the early years of the church it provided a sign that barriers of hostility were being broken down (because enemies usually won’t even touch each other), and as a result of the unity and peace that was created, the Holy Spirit came and made his home in a new extension of the community of Jesus’ followers. Significantly, we see the laying on of hands as the community expands to include Samaritans and Gentiles and when it welcomes its former enemy Saul of Tarsus. Nevertheless, there’s nothing wrong with laying hands on a person as an expression of support and encouragement while praying for them, even when praying with them for a filling of the Holy Spirit.

 

 

Why did Jesus say it would “fulfill all righteousness” if he were baptized?

This question was originally asked in a comment on my post, “Why did John the Baptist later question whether Jesus was the Messiah?” I thought the discussion would make for an interesting post of its own.

Q. What was the real reason why Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist? “To fulfill all righteousness.” If unrighteousness is sin, then righteousness is no sin. John the Baptist twice called Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” The Old Testament tabernacle was a mirror image of how Jesus would save us. The high priest would lay his hands on a goat and transfer all the sins of Israel onto it, and then the goat was led into the desert. Now John the Baptist being in the line of Aaron and being the greatest person to have arisen before the coming of the kingdom, what if John the Baptist laid his hands on Jesus and transferred all the sins of the world onto him, and then Jesus was also led into the desert?

The goat did not become a sinner, it only carried the sins; likewise Jesus  carried the sins, but he did not become a sinner. Scripture says that Jesus “came by water and blood” and that “the Spirit, the water, and the blood” testify to who he is. So at Jesus’ water baptism, the Holy Spirit came upon him, and later he shed his blood when he died on the cross.

No death on the cross—no salvation. No resurrection—no salvation. Jesus without being baptized—righteousness not fulfilled—no Holy Spirit descending on Jesus. Does this mean that if Jesus had not been baptized by John the Baptist, there would have been no salvation?

I think you have an interesting idea here and I have reproduced your  comment at length in this post so that readers can consider it. However, I understand the meaning of Jesus’ statement about fulfilling all righteousness a bit differently.

When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John asked, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” John agreed and baptized Jesus.

I think Jesus was saying, “You’re out here in the wilderness saying that God is breaking into our world to do a new thing and that anybody who wants to be part of it should be baptized to show how they want to join in what God is doing rather than follow sin. Well, I’m ‘all in’ with what God is doing, so I’m here to show that by being baptized.”

This doesn’t mean that Jesus had any sin that needed to be washed away. But our duty to God is not just negative (don’t sin), it’s also positive (obey God and take our part in what God is doing). I think Jesus was saying that even if he didn’t need to be baptized for the negative reasons (to wash away sin), he still wanted and needed to be baptized for the positive reasons.

In other words, Jesus would “fulfill all righteousness” by doing positively what God was asking people to do at that point in redemptive history. John agreed to let Jesus demonstrate his commitment to God’s purposes in that way. And in response, God revealed, through the voice from heaven and the descent of the Spirit, that Jesus was the Messiah (the Anointed One) through whom his purposes would be accomplished. This opened up for Jesus a whole series of positive duties to fulfill in obedience to God as he fulfilled his vocation as the Messiah.

David Zelenka, painting, “The Baptism of Christ,” used by permission, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Why did John the Baptist later question whether Jesus was the Messiah?

Q. I have recently been applying the technique of reading the Bible without thinking much about the chapters. Something struck me when I saw that John the Baptist, who was there at Jesus’s baptism and not only saw the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus but also heard the voice of God proclaiming that Jesus was indeed God’s Son, later on sent his disciples, when he was in prison, to ask if Jesus was the one or whether they should continue looking for another. What caused John, who in the beginning seemed fully persuaded, after a few pages seemingly to question his belief concerning Jesus’s identity. As I got to thinking about this question, I asked myself could it be that the disciples found themselves in the same circumstance after living and experiencing supernatural experiences with the Messiah, since we see them going into hiding after Jesus is arrested. Could you please help clarify what could be going on here, what could be the author be trying to communicate to us.

First, I commend you for reading the books of the Bible as whole literary works, rather than treating their chapters as discrete units to be considered individually and separately. As you’re already discovering, the purposes of the biblical authors extend throughout their entire works, and to appreciate those purposes, we need to catch the flow and development of plot, characterization, and themes as these unfold over the course of a whole book. So good for you for noticing the change in John the Baptist’s position toward Jesus—that is indeed something the author wants to use to convey a message to us. (Keep up the good work in your reading of and reflection on the Bible!)

I’ll approach your question through the Gospel of Matthew, because it’s the one that makes the most use of these episodes in John the Baptist’s life. To state the matter simply, John definitely knew, when Jesus came to him for baptism, that Jesus was the Messiah. The Spirit descending and the voice from heaven made that clear. But John didn’t yet understand what kind of Messiah Jesus was.

John said of the Messiah, His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. In other words, John expected the Messiah to come in judgment, rewarding the faithful and punishing the wicked. He didn’t yet realize that Jesus came the first time to teach, heal, and finally suffer and die on our behalf. Only when Jesus returns a second time will he execute the kind of judgment that John expected in his own lifetime.

Because John didn’t realize this, he didn’t expect that he would be put in prison by King Herod when he challenged him to become a more godly ruler. John probably expected that either Herod would repent, as so many thousands of people had already done in response to his preaching, or else God would start at the top and judge and punish Herod for his defiance. Instead, Herod threw John in prison and he languished there. A fine place for the herald of the one who was supposed to come with his winnowing fork in his hand!

So John sent messengers to Jesus to ask, Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” In other words, “Was I wrong to say that you were the Messiah?” Jesus responds, in effect, “You were right that I am the Messiah, but you were wrong about what kind of Messiah I am.” This is what he means when he tells John’s messengers, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” These were all signs of how God’s kingdom was breaking into the world through Jesus’ teaching and his acts of healing and compassion. John, on the other hand, was expecting Jesus to seize power and trounce the enemies of God, so he missed the significance of what was going on in Jesus’ ministry.

There are at least two things that the author would like us to understand from this. The episode is placed within the section of Matthew’s gospel dedicated to the “mystery of the kingdom.” In this section, we discover that the kingdom of God doesn’t look like what we expect. The episodes in this section lead up to the collection of parables, which talk about the kingdom beginning in small, nearly imperceptible ways, but then growing to have a great impact. For example: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” So one thing we’re supposed to learn is to look for the kingdom in the right places, and to use the right means to promote its growth and extension.

But Matthew also records that Jesus said to John’s disciples, after calling their attention to his teaching and healing, Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” This can also be translated, “Blessed is the person who is not offended by me,” or, “Blessed is the one who is not  scandalized by me.” It means that we should continue to trust Jesus, believe in him, and follow him, even when things aren’t turning out for us the way we expect. It’s likely that none of us really appreciates exactly what kind of Savior Jesus is, for us and for our world, and so we need to keep trusting him even when things happen that we don’t understand and weren’t expecting.

If we doubt him instead, then we “stumble,” that is, we are “offended” or “scandalized.” In the parables that follow shortly after this episode, Matthew repeats the specific Greek term that’s translated those various ways in English. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus warns about “people who hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (that is, they stumble or are offended). This parable generalizes the message from the episode of John the Baptist, warning all readers to apply it to themselves.

But along with this warning there is some wonderful encouragement. The Gospel of Matthew alternates between collections of narrative episodes and collections of Jesus’ teachings. The first large collection of teachings is the Sermon on the Mount. It begins with the Beatitudes, that is, a series of statements in which Jesus says that certain kinds of people will be blessed for certain reasons. (For example, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”) There are nine beatitudes. We’re supposed to wonder, “Why not ten?” Many characteristics of the Sermon on the Mount clearly portray Jesus as a new Moses, delivering a new understanding of what the kingdom of God means. The teaching that Moses brought down from the mountain began with the Ten Commandments; why doesn’t Jesus teaching on the mount begin with ten beatitudes?

If we read the Gospel of Matthew as a literary whole, we realize when we come to the episode about John the Baptist that we’ve finally found the tenth beatitude: Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” If we’re going to be the kind of people through whose lives the kingdom of God can break steadily into this world—meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and so forth—then we also need to be prepared to suffer for taking such a counter-cultural stance without trying also to seize power to protect ourselves. The kingdom of God will advance through this very suffering. But we need to trust in Jesus all the way through it.

Detail from a stained glass window depicting John the Baptist, Church of Saint Paul, Yellow Springs, Ohio. The Latin banner reads, “Behold the Lamb of God.” However, in this image, as in the Scriptural account, John seems to be expecting the Messiah to come more as a “lion” than as a “lamb”!

Why couldn’t God just change things on his own?

Q. Why couldn’t God just change things on his own? I mean, as powerful as he is to create the universe and mankind, living plants and mammals, I really don’t understand this part.

I understand you to be asking why God doesn’t act to end all the evil and suffering in the world, since He is omnipotent and no one can resist His power. I believe that this other post on my blog largely addresses your concerns:

Why do some people seem to suffer more than others?

Even though that post is written in response to a different question, it gets at the same issues you’re asking about. It explains that God created a world in which there was genuine moral freedom so that there could be the possibility of love. But at the same time, this freedom allowed for the possibility of destructive choices that would lead to suffering. Rather than act in all of His power to end that suffering (which would require taking away moral freedom), God chooses to work through the suffering to bring about His purposes in the end. He asks us to trust Him as he does this. And God Himself was willing to suffer, in the person of Jesus on the cross, setting an example for all of us to follow.

I hope this is helpful.

Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? (Part 3)

Q. Is it honoring to God for Christians who are Gentiles to keep the Sabbath? If so, how should they observe it? Or it is not required of them to observe the law in any shape or form? I had never observed the Sabbath or other laws on the understanding that as Christians, we weren’t required to do so. But a few years ago, when I was worn down from overwork, I prayed about the issue and I felt led to observe the Sabbath. (Not that I thought it would make me more righteous, or that I was trying to be.) But now that I have largely recovered from being worn down, I’d like to be able to do some of my academic research work on that day, or simple things like cooking, which I haven’t been doing. Would that be all right?

In my first post in response to this question, I described generally how the obligations of the Old Covenant, such as keeping the Sabbath, become opportunities under the New Covenant. In my next post, I talked about the reasons for the Sabbath: rest for weary bodies; worship of our Creator; and becoming part of God’s own work, which flows from His “rest.” In this post, I’d like to conclude this series by offering some suggestions for how you might keep the Sabbath practically.

The first important question is whether to keep the Sabbath as one particular day during the week or instead try to fulfill the purposes of the Sabbath on each day of the week. This will be a matter of individual guidance and conviction for each believer, but allow me to make a suggestion that may prove helpful. It seems to me that if your “work” is usually done at a particular place (for example, an office, a factory, or a shop), it’s prudent to make sure you get away from that place and get a good, solid break for at least one day every week. (Nothing wrong with a whole weekend, either.) But if your work can be done, and is done, in a variety of settings because it depends primarily on your inspiration, insights, and creativity (this would apply, for example, to writers, artists, researchers, composers, inventors, strategists, etc.), then you might repeatedly be frustrated if you tried to keep your work out of a specific day of the week. Chances are that the break you gave yourself from the usual routine would release your creative processes and you’d be flooded with ideas that you weren’t supposed to pursue that day! So think about what kind of work you do and whether it would lend itself best to “honoring one day as more sacred than others” or “honoring all days alike.”

A related question is the definition of “work.” Assuming that, for the most part, we are supposed to rest rather than work on the Sabbath, how can we know when we’re working and when we’re at rest? As I said in my second post, in general, anything that interferes with the purposes of the Sabbath should be recognized as “work,” while anything that promotes those purposes should be considered “rest.”

The Gospel of Luke reports how Jesus healed a woman who’d been disabled for eighteen years, unable to stand up straight. “He put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.” But the synagogue leader criticized him for doing this on the Sabbath. Jesus responded, “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” This was one of the many times when Jesus offered an “argument from the lesser to the greater”: If it was appropriate for people to be granted rest from fatigue on the Sabbath, how much more appropriate was it for this woman to be granted freedom from her disability on the Sabbath! Or as Jesus put it on another occasion, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, when he healed a man’s withered hand, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

Alexander Master, “Jesus Heals the Crippled Woman” (detail)

So, to use your specific example of cooking, if cooking is more for you than just getting meals on the table—if it’s a creative outlet and a source of joy and refreshment for you—then by all means, go ahead and cook, even on a day you might have set apart from “work.” It’s lawful to “do good” on that day. In the same way, if your research isn’t just a job, if it’s a way for you to use your talents to pursue something that you’re passionate about, then don’t feel that you have to shut it down for a whole day once a week—particularly not if some of your best insights occur to you on that day! But you’re on the honor system here. You’ll know in your own conscience whether you’re “pushing” to keep going when you should really be resting.

One other observation to make is that in the Old Testament, there wasn’t just a weekly Sabbath. There were also several week-long annual festivals that began and ended with days free from work. (And we can safely assume that in many cases, the entire festival was different from the usual work week; for example, during the Festival of Tabernacles, the Israelites lived in temporary shelters—kind of like going camping!) God also commanded the Israelites to give their farmland a sabbatical year every seven years. And beyond that, they were to observe a Year of Jubilee every fifty years, when all debts were cancelled and everyone returned to their ancestral property. This had the effect of freeing the rising generation from any bad financial legacy the older generation may have left, and at the same time it required each generation to make its own way in the world.

So let me leave you with this question and challenge: How will you observe the Sabbath over longer time periods? Will you make sure you get vacations every year and that they are genuine times of refreshment, restoration, and adventure? I trust that, as an academic, you’ve already had sabbatical experiences every several years that have permitted breakthroughs in your research and at the same time enabled you to step out of your regular life in a significant way so that you could return to it as a fresh person. And have you experienced a “Jubilee”? Around age 50, many people move from a traditionally defined position into a more creatively designed one that suits them personally and will allow them to use their gifts with maximum effectiveness for the rest of their careers. (This can happen within an institution they have been serving, or it may take them out of that institution into a consultancy, freelance, or similar role.)

There seems to be a biblical precedent for this type of move. God told Moses that Levites who were “twenty-five years old or more shall come to take part in the work at the tent of meeting, but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer. They may assist their brothers in performing their duties at the tent of meeting, but they themselves must not do the work.” So the more senior Levites became advisors and assistants who were not to keep doing the regular work themselves. Sounds to me as if they were then observing the Sabbath for the rest of their lives.

However, it may not not be practical or possible in many situations for our outward work to be transformed in this way. Nevertheless, we can all be transformed inwardly so that we are no longer restlessly striving for the rewards of work. Instead, may our work flow from who we are and who we are becoming, by the grace of God, so that we may truly “enter His rest” and, as God’s co-workers, cease from our labors as He ceased from His on that first Sabbath day.

Are Christians required to keep the Sabbath? (Part 2)

Q. Is it honoring to God for Christians who are Gentiles to keep the Sabbath? If so, how should they observe it? Or it is not required of them to observe the law in any shape or form? I had never observed the Sabbath or other laws on the understanding that as Christians, we weren’t required to do so. But a few years ago, when I was worn down from overwork, I prayed about the issue and I felt led to observe the Sabbath. (Not that I thought it would make me more righteous, or that I was trying to be.) But now that I have largely recovered from being worn down, I’d like to be able to do some of my academic research work on that day, or simple things like cooking, which I haven’t been doing. Would that be all right?

Based on what I wrote in response to your question in my last post, in which I explained how the obligations of the Old Covenant become opportunities under the New Covenant, you won’t be surprised to learn that I do encourage Christians to continue observing the Sabbath, as a spiritual discipline and as an opportunity to do good. So the answer to the first part of your question is yes, it is honoring to God when we keep the Sabbath in those ways. And this brings me to the second part of your question: How should we observe it?

The New Testament suggests that there are different ways a person can fulfill the purposes behind the Sabbath. One way is indeed to refrain from work on a given day of the week. The definition of “work” is very much up to the individual under the New Covenant; as with giving, it’s a matter of what you “determine in your heart.” But I’d say generally that any activity that interferes with the purposes of the Sabbath is likely “work” and should be left aside during Sabbath time. (I’ll say more shortly about what those purposes are.)

Some people choose to do no work on Saturday, the seventh day, the day God “rested” after creation and the day that was observed under the Old Covenant. Others choose Sunday, the first day, the day of Christ’s resurrection, symbolic of our entrance into new life. Both choices have good theological foundations and are time-honored practices in the community of Jesus’ followers.

However, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says that the Sabbath can also be kept as an everyday practice. When discussing two issues about which believers in his day had different convictions, Sabbath observance and eating meat that had been offered to idols, he wrote, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” We can infer from this overall argument that Paul would also say that “whoever considers every day alike does so to the Lord.” So it’s also possible for a person to keep the Sabbath by looking for opportunities every day to fulfill its purposes.

And what are those purposes? One primary reason for the Sabbath is to allow weary bodies to rest and recover. The Law of Moses said, “The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.” God designed for all creatures, human and animal, to have regular opportunities for their finite bodies to recover from the exertions of life.

No one who had power over another person or animal was to deny them this necessary refreshment: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” It’s crucial to emphasize, in our overworked culture, that this also means we must not deny our own bodies the opportunity to rest. I’m glad that you recognized this in your own case and that you have pursued this purpose of the Sabbath to the point where you feel largely recovered.

But there are other purposes for the Sabbath as well. As an admission of our creaturely finiteness, it is also supposed to be an act of humility and worship, in acknowledgment of God’s infinite greatness. And so it’s appropriate that communities of believers that observe a given day as the Sabbath also tend to hold worship services on that same day. One inference is that anyone who keeps the Sabbath as an everyday spiritual discipline should look for opportunities each day to express humble and grateful worship.

The book of Hebrews, however, suggests another very intriguing purpose of the Sabbath. Its author writes, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for all who enter God’s rest also cease from their works, just as God did from his.” This means, for one thing, that we cease from trying to be righteous before God through our works and instead rely in faith on what Jesus has done for us. In light of this, it’s certainly appropriate that you haven’t been keeping the Sabbath itself to try to become more righteous before God.

But there’s a lot more going on here. The Gospel of John relates how, one Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man who couldn’t walk. When the Jewish leaders criticized him for doing this, he replied, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” In my study guide to John, I explain what Jesus meant by this:

The Jews of his day already accepted that God had to be at work sometimes on the Sabbath. They believed, for example, that God actively sent rain, and it often rained on the Sabbath. But human work was forbidden. Jesus explained, however, that the work he was doing was not his own, but the Father’s: “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” This is actually a good description of Jesus’ “glory”: his intimate relationship with the Father and his sensitivity to the work that the Father wanted to do through him at any given moment. The point is that followers of Jesus can have this same kind of relationship with the Father and be actively involved in God’s own work on every single day of the week.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda” (1667-70), The National Gallery, London

In other words, if the Sabbath is a time when we refrain from our own work, that only means that it’s the ideal time for us to take our part in God’s work, which He is always doing. This is the idea of “co-operation” that’s a leading theme of the Gospel of John: God operates and we operate with Him, discerning where and how He is acting and joining in. This understanding of the Sabbath clearly calls for us to approach it as a sacred time that’s not limited to one day of the week, even though we may still “consider one day more sacred than another” as we seek to fulfill other Sabbath purposes.

But there’s a paradox here, which the author of Hebrews notes: We are called to join with God in his work, “and yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world.” After all, Scripture says, “On the seventh day God rested from all his works.” Jewish interpreters were fascinated to note that while Scripture marks the ending of the first six days of creation with a repeated formula about mornings and evenings, no ending is specified for the seventh day. So God’s “rest” has continued from then until the present. In effect, it’s still the seventh day of creation, and God is still resting. So how can He be working?

The solution to this paradox is offered in the specific instructions for the Sabbath in the book of Exodus, which say, “For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. . . . For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”

In what way could an infinitely powerful God be refreshed, if by definition He could never get tired in the first place? Many interpreters consider the “refreshment” of God to be, in effect, the “aaah” feeling He got when He surveyed “all that He had made” and saw that it was “very good.” While God first got this overview at the end of the sixth day, He devoted the entire next day to contemplating and admiring the beauty of the entire finished creation.

And apparently that day extends right down to the present. This means that God’s “work” flows from his unending seventh-day “rest,” that is, from his view of the finished creation as very good. This means that God has never acted out of desperation to try frantically to fix something that has apparently gone wrong with the world He made. I’ve discussed in other posts on this blog how God built freedom into the creation, and with it the possibility that people might choose things that were contrary to His  purposes. But God has known from the start that this is something He can accommodate within His original plans, as He takes an active part to bring the creation to its intended fulfillment. (As I write in another post, for example, “God is able to work through the free choices, both good and bad, of moral agents to accomplish His purposes.”)

So God’s actions flow from his Sabbath rest, his confident assurance, informed by his survey of the finished creation, that all of His purposes will be accomplished and that the beautiful world of creatures He made will ultimately fulfill its intended purpose. We are to lay aside our own work and join in His work with that same confident assurance, in our case based on faith in Him, informed by our understanding of His works from creation down to the present. This is what it means, in the deepest sense, to keep the Sabbath.

But I would like, in my final post in this series, to offer some specific suggestions for how you can work a Sabbath observance into your life that will fulfill all of its purposes, from this most lofty one to the practical necessity of bodily rest.