Sabbath and the covenant community

As we seek to understand what it means for our mission team to be a covenant community, we need to go back to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.  Their identity as a people was grounded in their special covenant relationship with Yahweh.   The Lord God made some special promises to them (redemption from slavery, a land of their own flowing with milk and honey, etc), and made clear His expectations of His chosen people (no tolerance for hedging their bets with the competition, obedience to the Law, etc).   As a sign of their mutual covenant, God gave them the Sabbath, both as a distinguishing practice among the nations, and as a scheduled life “pause button”, enabling them to refocus their attention on their relationship as a covenant community with their God

Because the Sabbath day was a sign of their covenant, the Israelites were to remember to observe Sabbath and keep it holy (Ex. 20:8), refraining from engaging in regular work on that day.  Neglecting to honour the Sabbath was much more serious than just indicating a tendency to work-alcoholism; it would demonstrate their disregard for the covenant itself.   By treating this day as ordinary, they were in effect telling God and the world that they did not consider their relationship with God to be anything special.

But not only were the Israelites enjoined to sanctify (make holy) the Sabbath.  The Sabbath also made them holy, setting them apart to that which God had called them.   In Ezekiel 20, God through the prophet Ezekiel, talks about this dual role of Sabbath.   In Ezekiel 20:20, God reminds them of His command to keep the Sabbath holy.   But prior to that, God declares that He gave the people the Sabbath “as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them.” (Ezek 20:12)    The Sabbath would deepen the people’s knowledge and understanding of God as Yahweh-M’Kaddesh, and this knowledge would change them, and make them more like their God, holy and set apart.

We know that Israel did not keep the Sabbath holy – and they did not become intimately acquainted with the God who sanctifies them.   They “profaned” the Sabbath (Ezekiel 20:13,16,21) and so they were severely punished for this act of contempt toward their God and their covenant with Him.  Their very existence as a covenant community was put in question, as the temple was destroyed, the leaders and many of the people were executed or starved to death, and a small remnant was exiled to Babylon.  In time, God purged and purified the nation, and by the time of Christ, we find the Jews intensely committed to keeping the Sabbath.  They had learned the hard way that this “sign” of the covenant was important to God.

How does Israel’s experience relate to our experience of covenant community today?  Are we expected to keep the Sabbath holy?   I believe that the Scriptures are clear that Sabbath-keeping was a sign for the people of the old covenant, and is not obligatory upon the new covenant community (Col 2:16-17, Rom 14:5-6).   But regularly pushing the “pause button” on our lives, and reflecting on our special covenant relationship with God and with one another is still vitally important for us, although it does not necessarily need to happen on a weekly regimen for a 24-hour time period.   Remember that even under the old covenant community, the Sabbath was given as a sign “that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them“.   The ultimate goal was not strict outward adherence to the sign, but a growing relationship with and understanding of the God who was changing them into community designed for glory and holiness.


When do we push “pause” long enough to really get to know the God who is sanctifying us?  When do we stop to reflect on how He is changing us, what lessons He has been teaching us, in what direction He is nudging us?   Do we know God as the One who is changing us?   If so, we will be committed to life-long learning and continually seeking to develop our character, skills and knowledge.   In other words as we get to know the God who is sanctifying us, we won’t be needing anyone from SEND U to tell us that we should be looking for opportunities to grow and learn.   That will be the cry of our heart.

But growth and learning rarely happens unless we pause long enough to reflect on the lessons learned in the past and make plans to live differently in the future.   Rushing headlong from one activity to the next without ever withdrawing to refocus on “the God who sanctifies us” will result in a endless cycle of the same mistakes and very little recognition of the life-lessons God has designed for our “sanctification schooling“.   So let’s push “pause” more often.    At the beginning of this year,  I would encourage you personally to take a half-day or even just a couple of hours to pray and reflect on what God has been teaching you.   The reflect and refocus worksheet found on the SENDU.org wiki under personal development is a tool that can help in this process.   You may want to share what you discover with your team (covenant community).

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