And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: 'Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed.' " And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God. (Exodus 31:12-13,16-18)
Who are these words spoken to today? The Jews in Israel or the Christians around the world? Both? Or can either really claim them? The answers depend a lot on whether the "sign between Me and you" is just a matter of which day people go to synagogue or to church or is something much deeper.
Yet what promise, what hope these words in Exodus 31 have! And what passion they inspire to this very day! Christians and Jews are no longer arguing with each other about it as they did long ago, but with themselves. Riots are happening in Israel over whose views of the Sabbath should prevail, and headlines like, "Jerusalem Shaken by Riots -- Sabbath War Escalates," shout from the news-stands.1 In America, a popular conservative website has a major article called, "Deception: Christians War over the Sabbath."2
What is the significance of these wars over the Sabbath? Do they mean that God cannot give His people the same mind and the same heart? Or can they not even agree on the Ten Commandments, which are "the words of the covenant" He made with them at Mount Sinai?3 Perhaps they must really be one as He is one in order to hear Him, and must really love Him with all their hearts before His words can be in their hearts.4 Intellectual arguments over the meaning of Scripture never seem to settle such disputes, do they?
The call of these verses in Exodus 31 to be God's people still remains and still grips the minds and hearts of people all over the world. For most, though, the passion of the Jews about the Sabbath is more understandable -- it's their day, after all.5 The basic Christian position for many centuries has agreed with this, maintaining that Sunday superseded or even annulled the Sabbath of old Israel, being the day of the Savior's resurrection.
Yet many individuals and many groups in Christianity have not been satisfied with this dismissal of the Fourth Commandment, no matter how well founded it seems in the basis of their religion. They simply cannot get past the stirring words, "a sign between Me and you... a perpetual covenant... written with the finger of God."
They sense inside themselves the terrible sacrilege of cutting off the finger of God, as it were, by failing to set aside the seventh day of the week as special -- a day of rest or worship. Most others have found nothing alarming in regarding every day the same.6 Yet, in theory, both Jews and Christians live in the hope that what was once written on tablets of stone would finally be written on their hearts:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah...But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:31,33)
What would such a society, such a culture, look like?
Consider this: it would be the fulfillment of all that the Law commanded and all that the Prophets spoke -- nothing less. There would be no poor among them,7 each man would love his neighbor as himself,8 the Law would be a delight to them as it was to King David,9 and their life together would be a light to the world, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.10 And so much more! Yes, even fulfilling all that the Law and Prophets and the Psalms have already spoken of Israel, His people.
Two thousand years ago, the people who believed that Messiah had come were few in number and powerless, sustained only by their faith in the God of Israel. They had nothing in this life but one another, having forsaken all in obedience to the gospel they had heard and believed.11 In reality, those first disciples are just as much strangers to Christians today as to Jews, having so little in common with either group. Their greatest spokesman, Paul, described their conduct and mission in life in these terms:
And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers. To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain. For this hope's sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews. (Acts 26:6-7)
They lived their lives to fulfill the promises made by their God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They did everything "for them," as one translation puts it -- even the Jewish people who were persecuting them.12 Thus, they did not see themselves replacing or dispossessing the Hebrew people, but serving them as a spiritual nation. The Israel they served were the natural descendants of Abraham, while the spiritual twelve tribes which Paul spoke of were gathered from beyond the borders of Israel,13 as well as within them.
They were "Servant Israel," as the prophet Isaiah had foretold.14 And it was just such service, such worship of God Most High, manifested in the life of love they had for one another, that validated the Sabbath rest they took week by week. That rest is for His people who are even now, in this life, being sanctified. It is more than a matter of which day to worship, or even to rest. The sign signifies something significant. The rest God's people take shows their trust that God will do all He has promised to do in their lives.
Sanctified means set apart, and they, His holy people, were set apart in communities like the first one in Jerusalem,15 followed by similar communities all around the ancient world of the Roman Empire. They were what Paul wrote of in 1 Corinthians 1:2 -- a people set apart from the world, who were in the world but not of it. Thus, love for one another marked them as disciples of their Master.16 It was only such intense love that could ever fulfill the first and greatest commandment:
Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-6)
These words were brought into the New Covenant by Yahshua, who taught and commanded His followers to obey them as an urgent necessity in fulfilling their purpose:
Yahshua said to him, "'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40)
Indeed, only such love could ever fulfill all the Law and all the Prophets. Such love may be compared to a living tree, and the living fruit which hangs and depends on it, which fulfills the Law and Prophets. Apart from such wholehearted love, God's words through Moses and the Prophets would fall to the ground in vain. And those who allow His words to fall also take His name in vain if they still insist on calling upon Him but do not devote their lives to doing what He said.17
The early disciples were inspired both to know and do His commandments, so to be great in the Kingdom. (See Matthew 5:17-19 quoted below.) They did this for the same reason they gave up all things -- because they loved their Savior. They did all they did for His sake and for His gospel's sake.18 You honor and obey those you love. You do not obey whom you do not love.19 Thus, they could teach others to obey Him as they did. They saw their purpose in life exactly as He saw His -- fulfilling every word spoken by the mouth of God in the Law and Prophets:
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)
This is why they kept the Sabbath (which is much more than a mere jot or title of the Law20) -- because they wanted to bring about His kingdom. It's what they were living for. This brought rest not only to His heart as their Father, their Abba, but to the hearts of their brothers, too. Love, and only love, can bring about the fulfillment of the words of Jeremiah, "They shall all know Me."21
The practical, day-to-day salvation they received, not just the gift of faith expressed in their baptism into His community, was the proof that He was sanctifying them as Exodus 31 says. In other words, their rest on the seventh day of the week had significance -- it wasn't a "go-to-church-on-Sabbath" sign detached from their life together as believers. Truly, all who believed were together, just as at the first in Jerusalem.22 And so it has ever been. Those not together are those who do not believe.
Sadly, even tragically, the cares and worries of life and the deceitfulness of selfishness (sin) first changed the nature of their communities, and then destroyed them. The sign of the Sabbath is only valid for a people who are loving the Lord with all their heart, soul, and strength, and in the same way, loving their neighbor as themselves. Resting on the seventh day became increasingly meaningless to many in the early church as the decades turned into the first few centuries of the Christian era. Others, however, could not give it up, and would have edicts and laws passed against them for a long time to come. One example was the degree of Council of Laodicea (circa 363 AD), actually forbidding Christians from resting on the Sabbath.23
The churches divided internally into clergy and laity, and rich and poor,24 and externally over many, many issues. Malice and wickedness pervaded the lump25 like leaven, and the sincere were silenced by the powerful clergy. So, the hope of the end of the age faded within them, as it must among those who lose their connection to God. It was clear from James 1:26-27 that they had broken their link to Him. The widows and orphans had to fend for themselves with the end of community. As the apostles died off, the leading intellectuals of the church soon showed their unbridled tongues in the harsh, insulting comments they made in defense of their faith.26
When their faith became another religion -- even a "correct" one -- the measure of faith became "correct" doctrine. Love was left behind. Love, as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13, is not rude; it does not seek its own way; it is not even able to push dogma aside -- it has not the strength. Love only lives where it is warmly welcomed, where it has first place in the hearts of the people.27
As love was left behind like a divorced wife, naturally, so were the children.28 "Command your children and your household after you to keep the way of Yahweh by doing righteousness and justice"29 was no longer being fulfilled by parents turning their hearts to their children.30 This meant the great goal of Genesis 15:18 was left behind, that God would give Abraham's offspring their land in peace. This was the vital connection between their life and their purpose. Once broken, they had nothing left to live for but their own interests.
The vibrant early church became another world religion, shepherded (if the word can be used of them) by masters of Greek philosophy and rhetoric (the so-called "Early Church Fathers"). They exalted themselves over the people even in the last days of the apostles.31 They turned the church into something that would catch the attention of a political genius like Constantine. Not surprisingly, the further they got from their Hebrew roots, the more acceptable they became to the Roman elites and educated Greeks around them. In time these men filled more and more positions of authority in the "church."
In due time, Constantine came onto the scene, uniting the Roman Empire under his rule by force of arms. At the same time, he struggled with a more difficult task: uniting the fractured Christian Church by enticement, persuasion, and if need be, by the same sword that had always served him so well. Driven by political ambition, he first set the Christian Church free from persecution. Then, he began to set them on high, to a place of influence, wealth, and power they could scarcely have dreamed of twenty years before.
However, Constantine still had a very large empire to rule over, the vast majority of whom were not Christians. How to appease both groups, each uneasy about the other, was the challenge. One part of the solution was put into effect on March 7, 321 AD, when Constantine made Sunday the official day of rest for the Roman Empire:
On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed.32
The Christian world gratefully followed him, thankful for the blessing of peace, prosperity, and power, and it still follows him (and most any ruler) to the present day.
Let no one doubt that he did well in changing the Sabbath to Sunday -- in changing the day of rest from the Seventh Day to the First Day. He did well because the early church had long since left their first love.33 What else but love could be the sign of God's presence in a people? So Constantine took the sign away, the sign that had already been invalidated. It was a sign, yes, but one with no reality to it. Resting on the Sabbath makes a claim to the world -- that you are the "you" in Exodus 31:13, "a sign between Me and you." There was no witness fulfilling Matthew 22:37-40, which is loving Him with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.
God's people were to do Genesis 18:19, raising their children in the way of Yahweh. This was what Abraham's offspring were to do, but rarely did. This was "the way" in which the early church walked for a brief time,34 but not beyond its first generation. Neither old Israel nor the early church bore the fruit of the kingdom of God, so both were cut off.35