A Separate People

“‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, ESV).

My kids think I am older than dirt. I’m so old that I remember the Blue Laws, the laws that forbade Walmart (et. al.) from being open 24-7-365. In my small hometown when I was young, only one (of the two) grocery stores was open on Sunday with minimal staff for emergency purchases. The only pharmacy would be open just a few hours on Sunday afternoon and the few gas stations would rotate being open on Sunday. The calendar that we got each year from our bank would identify holidays in red — Sundays were considered holidays (or “holy-days”).

But those days are gone now. I need to take down all of my Bibles from my bookshelves and end tables and night stands and cross out Deuteronomy 5:12-15, along with Exodus 20:8-11. While I am at it, maybe Isaiah 58:13-14 should go too! But if I did, then what would I do with the passage in Hebrews 13:8 that says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”? Was His statement to the Pharisees that He is “Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:5) intended to dismiss the fourth commandment altogether?

We who hold to the authority of the the revealed Truth of Scripture wrestle with this in our current generation. The culture around us has chosen to ignore the God we worship and the Truth He has revealed about Himself. One way that it has done this is to encroach upon the Sunday observance. The choice before us seems to be between legalistic observance and total disregard. Some Christians try to justify the latter position by claiming that this is the only one of the Ten Commandments that is not repeated in the New Testament in some form. But that position places this statement in the category of the Ceremonial Laws that restricted what foods the Jews could eat or what sacrifices should be made for various offenses. The Ceremonial Laws were once-and-for-all fulfilled by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Those who hold the position that the Fourth Commandment can be ignored still believe that the Moral Law is valid. But — interestingly — this commandment is the only one that Moses tied to the creation, predating the Law given at Mt. Sinai. Even if our theological perspective discounts the Old Testament Law, we are still products of the creation, so the weekly day of rest is still important to observe for believers, if Scripture has any authority. 

The best way to reconcile this dilemma is to read the word “holy” as “separate,” which is its original definition. Just as every penny to our names comes from Him, just as every morsel we consume comes from the earth that He created (Ps 24:1), every moment of every day is a gift of His grace. In one sense, it is all holy, but earnest believers who want to honor the Redeemer SEPARATE a portion of their income to offer it as a token of the whole. These believers bow to acknowledge that the source of their meal is the earth that He watered, and they SEPARATE a portion of their 168 hours each week for worship. Solomon reminded us that honoring the Lord should come from the FIRST of our produce (Prov 3::9-10); it is customary to bless our food BEFORE we consume it and it is appropriate that we START our week with a time of worship. Certainly these things can all become legalistic observances, but they don’t have to be.

When Moses approached Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go to worship their God, Pharaoh’s response was to increase the intensity of their servitude. If they had so much idle time to go and worship, they could work more, he reasoned (Ex. 5:17). As we have moved away from the Sunday observance laws, employers have become much bolder in requiring work on Sundays, much like Pharaoh of old. Sunday work is no longer limited to doing good and to deeds of mercy (Matt 12:12). 

But the intent of the observance of a day of rest was to identify the Hebrew people with the God they worshiped — the Lord God of Israel (Ex. 31:12-17). This was originally why it was incorporated into our laws. He is and was separate and distinct from every other pagan deity, and His people should be separate as well, identifying themselves as His.

Avoiding Holiday Dysfunction

Oh that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes! Then I shall not be put to shame, having my eyes fixed on all your commandments (Psalm 119:5-6, ESV).

The holiday season is one of the worst for depression. The contrast between the joyful facades that are supposed to accompany the season and the painful realities we feel increases our sadness. Then there are the obligatory, but awkward, family gatherings that often highlight the dysfunctions of our relatives (or, sometimes, ourselves). We genuinely love them but recognize that their drug, alcohol, relational, or financial struggles are ultimately the product of their own decisions. It is difficult to sympathize while holding our tongues so that we are not perceived as being judgmental. To avoid these subjects, the conversation turns to football, the entertainment turns to new movies opening on Christmas Day (that connection is not coincidental), and the parties turn to alcohol.

Despite our best efforts we cannot eliminate the dysfunctions of our families. At best we can merely minimize our own dysfunctions. Although he dealt with problems of his own, King David recognized the best method for avoiding them — fixing our eyes on God’s commandments and keeping them (see Ps. 119:5-6, emphasis added).

This was the same recipe that the Lord gave to Moses to give to the children of Israel,
“Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy 32:46-47,ESV, emphasis added).

After Moses died and Joshua assumed the leadership position, the Lord told him the same thing, “[be] careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:7-8, ESV, emphasis added).

Not surprisingly, Jesus said the same thing in His first public address, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matthew 7:24-27, ESV, emphasis added).

This list of significant Bible characters could go on and on, but the point is made. Reading, thinking about, and obeying the Word of God is the key to avoiding a dysfunctional life. Many Christians try to read the Bible cover to cover each year, but (sadly) far more have never read it even once. Whether you purpose to read the whole of the Scripture each year is not the point. Immersing yourself each day in some part of it with the purpose of obeying it will go a long way toward keeping your family members from being embarrassed by your struggles next Christmas.

Scripture . . . on Scripture

Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalm 119:105)

Martin Luther led the Reformation to reclaim the Judeo-Christian Scriptures as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. My life, also, has been transformed by the Scripture, but Luther and I are not alone. Consider how the great saints viewed the Word of God.

Moses’ last words of instruction to the Hebrew people were, “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess” (Deuteronomy 32:47, ESV).

Joshua’s first instructions from the Lord included, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success” (Joshua 1:8, ESV).

David wrote Psalm 19 to describe the two primary ways in which the Lord reveals Himself: natural revelation in creation and special revelation in the Law. That is where he says that the Law is “more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold” (10). Later he penned a literary masterpiece, Psalm 119, in which he creates an eight line stanza for each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Almost all of the 176 verses mention some important quality of the Law.

At the close of Isaiah’s prophecy, he quotes the Lord as saying essentially, “I am not impressed by what you can build or do for me; I am impressed by the one who trembles at My Word” (Is 66:1-2).

After the Exile, Ezra the scribe “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10 ESV). He would later make a covenant of obedience with those among the returning exiles who “trembled at the command of God” (10:3).

In a chapter describing the false prophets of his day who ignored the Law, Jeremiah quotes the Lord, “‘Is not my word like fire,’ declares the LORD, ‘and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets,’ declares the LORD, ‘who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets,’ declares the LORD, ‘who use their tongues and declare, “declares the LORD.” Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams,’ declares the LORD, ‘and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all,’ declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 23:29-32, ESV).

When Jesus began His ministry His first recorded sermon included those famous words, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:18-19, ESV). Then, on the night before His crucifixion, John quotes Jesus as saying, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17, ESV).

Paul’s last letter declared, “All Scripture is breathed out by God . . . I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Tim 3:16-4:2).

Peter also identified the Scripture as of divine origin when he wrote, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21, ESV).

There are other people in biblical history that were transformed by the Word of God (consider kings Hezekiah and Josiah). Like these people the re-discovery of the Word by Martin Luther and the Reformers was what changed the world 500 years ago; real revival will only happen when the Church today does the same.

God’s Full Revelation

“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46-47, ESV).

The Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures form the complete revelation of God’s direct communication to the men He created. This truth is under-emphasized in our day. Some strains of theology today suggest — if they don’t teach outright — that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament, even that a Christian doesn’t need to read the Old Testament. Such teaching is wrong.

The New Testament is truly the final recorded Word from God, and it contains the essential teaching about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but it doesn’t make the Old Testament obsolete. Jesus Himself observed in the passage quoted above that “[Moses] wrote of Me.” Therefore to appreciate the singular intent of God in this world, it is important to understand the Old Testament as well as the New.

Someone who is a true basketball fan doesn’t merely tune into a game for the last 2 minutes of the game; he arranges his schedule to watch the whole game. A lot happened in the game before the last two minutes. Similarly, a lot happened in our world to bring us to Jesus. We can’t fully understand the New Testament until we have a grasp of the Old.

For example, why did Matthew begin his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus? It was because of the promise given to King David that Messiah would come from his descendants. Without this knowledge, the first few verses of Matthew (and a portion of Luke’s Gospel as well) would be merely a long list of often-unpronounceable names that have no relevance to life today.

The Old Testament records the ways God has tried to communicate His Truth to men from the beginning. Sin had entered this world and God was/is intent on redeeming men despite it. Beginning in Genesis 3, He promised to send a person who would crush the serpent who had tempted men to sin. That person would become known in Jewish writings as “Messiah” and would be “a prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15).

The list of hints, prophecies and pictures of Messiah are contained in almost every book of the Old Testament. Messiah Jesus didn’t just appear on the scene one day; He was the fulfillment of a long, remarkable plan of God to redeem men.

This is why our church has celebrated Passover for the past several years. This Jewish feast was intended by God (through Moses) to help His people to recognize Messiah when He came. Sadly it just became a ritual handed down from generation to generation. Happily, though, some of us have seen the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus, and it has enriched us beyond measure.

Striking the Rock

8 “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. …11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. 12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ” Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Numbers 20:8-12, NASB, emphasis added)

It is a great temptation for believers to obey halfway — to give an appearance of obedience when, in fact, we are disobeying. As with Moses, there are always consequences to our disobedience.

The holiness of God demands our complete attention. Isaiah tells us that the person God esteems is the one who is “humble and contrite of spirit and who trembles at [His] Word” (Is. 66:2, NASB). It’s not enough to just hear God speak, we must pay attention to the details.

When I was probably 12 or 13, my mom sent me to the grocery store on my bicycle for some hamburger buns. I had only heard “buns” so brought back hot dog buns. Our burgers that evening had to be shaped long and thin to fit the bread!

Like most men I sometimes have trouble listening to the details of my wife’s instructions when something is needed from a store. Happily cell phones can now keep me out of trouble as I can call for clarification.

The busy world in which we live lures us into the same inattention to detail with God’s Word as I experienced as a young teen and still experience as a husband, yet — if He is really holy — there is no excuse for my failure to give Him my full attention. What distraction could possibly be as important as the Word of the eternal God? That’s why Isaiah trembled when God spoke (66:2).

But Moses’ inattention, however, wasn’t due to the busyness of his world — it was due to his anger. He was frustrated that the people he was leading were constantly complaining. Nothing was ever right with these people, and he had had enough. Sometimes our failure to obey completely is due to our own self-righteousness and sin, and this is far more serious than a mere distraction. Mis-shaped hamburgers are no big deal, but Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land because of it.

Do you “tremble at [God’s] Word”? When He calls you to tithe, do you interpret this as merely “give’” and give a token amount? When He calls upon you to “renew your mind” (Rom. 12:2), do you listen to Christian music rather than turning it all off so you can read the Word? Are daily devotions a once-a-week event? “The LORD God of Israel declares…‘those who honor Me I will honor’” (1 Samuel 2:30, NASB).