Loving The Law? Providing Perspective to the Sabbath
It was the dog days of summer and, as with every summer when I was young, I was spending a month with my grandparents in the mountain of North Carolina. While there, I would often meet up with other boys (some, who, like myself, were spending part of their summer break with a relative who lived in the area). We would ride our bikes through the mountain community, play baseball, and occasionally look for harmless mischief to carry out. So it was, one afternoon, that one of the boys decided it would be fun to carelessly shoot off fireworks. Now, shooting off fireworks was always a community tradition on July 4th, but not something that we typically did in August. As we were teenage boys with their hands on some fireworks and without adult oversight (at that particular moment), the prefrontal cortexes in our respective brains were a long way from being fully developed; hence, mischief could become, simply, bad judgment.
It was about 3:00 in the afternoon. (Exhibit A as to the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex: Who holds an impromptu fireworks show at 3:00 in the afternoon?). One of the boys decided to set off the fireworks right in the middle of a winding mountain road. (Exhibit B…) Now, seeing as how I was three digits short of having ten fingers, I somehow had the presence of mind to stay back and keep my distance from this folly. (“Look at the big prefrontal cortex on Matt!”) In the end, no one got injured setting off fireworks and no cars came flying around the corner needing to slam on the brakes in order to avoid running over a bunch of mischievous young boys standing in the middle of the road.
Later that week, we all met up together at a community-wide dinner that was a summer tradition in the area. As it turned out, we boys all sat together, directly across from an elderly man who lived not far from where the 3:00 PM fireworks show had taken place. He was aware of what happened, looked the main perpetrators squarely in the eye, and chided them for their behavior.
Whatever any of us thought about it, we never discussed it. Speaking for myself, even though I had been wise enough to step away from the mischief, I still looked disdainfully at the elderly man for chiding my friends. He came across to me as a naysayer, and I didn’t like him speaking so forthrightly; however, nearly 40 years later, I have a greater appreciation for his intent (that, and maybe my prefrontal cortex wasn’t quite as developed at the time as previously thought).
In fairness to that elderly man, what stands out to me now is his expressed intention for our well-being, that no one get hurt. I would suggest that man is a picture to us of what the Old Testament refers to as “the Law”.
Many Christians tend to think negatively of “the Law” because, from our Protestant Reformed perspective, we cannot gain righteousness from the Law, and we know that the Law serves to show us our sin and our inability to live up to the commands of the Law. After all, as Martin Luther said,
“For the Law is a taskmaster; it demands that we work and that we give. In short, it wants to have something from us. The Gospel, on the contrary, does not demand; it grants freely; it commands us to hold out our hands and to receive what is being offered.” (1)
In fairness to what was Luther’s precise concern at the time, it is eminently true that obedience to the Law can never be for us a means of righteousness, and the New Testament epistles (particularly Romans and Galatians) are abundantly clear on this point.
However, there are different ways of accurately looking at, contemplating on, and appreciating what the Bible calls “the Law”. The man who carelessly cuts himself on a knife does not then declare, henceforth, that all knives are useless, harmful and to be avoided.
Take Psalm 119, for example. The author of this Psalm begins by praying,
1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!
2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!
4 You have commanded your precepts to be kept diligently.
5 Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes!
6 Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart, when I learn your righteous rules.
8 I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!
(Psalm 119:1-8 ESV)
The Psalmist expresses a love for the law while openly admitting to a tendency to stray from the law. These words are hardly written from the perspective of keeping the law in order to be righteous before God. The 119th Psalm is a meditation upon the value of living according to God’s commands – valuing God’s design for how we are to live.
9 How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
10 With my whole heart I seek you;
let me not wander from your commandments!
11 I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
(Psalm 119:9-11 ESV)
(Maybe there IS a connection between the value of God’s commands and the development of a young man’s prefrontal cortex….)
I say all this because, if we are going to have an appreciation for the Sabbath, we must first have an appreciation for the commands of God (for “the Law”), again, not as a means of righteousness, but as a means for how we are created to live. And when it comes to the Sabbath, we need rest, and God has designed the entire creation (including us and our bodies) with this rest in mind. As Jesus has said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27 ESV)
So, if the Sabbath is made for man, the question becomes: Will we then choose to receive it and treat it as a treasured gift?
(1) Luther, Martin, Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, Luther’s Works, Concordia Publishing House, Fortress Press, Saint Louis, Missouri, 1963, p. 208.