When we left my Independent Fundamental Baptist roots (not because of rules so much, or a particular bad experience, but because in our study of the Bible, some of our beliefs had changed so fundamentally that we no longer fit), in searching for where we belonged in the world of Christendom, we ended up in a Reformed Baptist church.
Reformed Baptists, with their peculiar brand of legalism, quite different from the IFB world, believe among other things that Sunday, as the Sabbath, is to be set aside for rest as they define it. The Reformed Baptist church that we were in gave very strict instructions as to what that would look like: besides the schedule of being in a church meeting from fairly early in the morning until dinner time, spending time in the afternoon with others in the church, and then coming back for another long church meeting in the evening, they also delineated certain activities that were off limits. This list wasn’t that different from what I had grown up with in my own family, but the difference was that if you didn’t do this, you were running the chance of being preached about, against, and to. For us, Sunday was the most exhausting day of the week.
I remember standing in the kitchen of some dear Reformed Baptist friends, looking out the window at their swimming pool, where their children sat on the edge dangling their toes in the water.
“What do you think about swimming on Sunday?” the wife asked me.
I answered fairly quickly. “To me it just seems like letting the children play,” I said. “If we let them play outside, why not let them play in the water?”
But while I was answering, I was flashbacking.
Even though in the churches of my youth, Sunday wasn’t supposed to be set aside as the Sabbath Rest day, our own family really did try to follow that concept, again with certain rules. We didn’t watch TV on Sunday. We didn’t read the newspaper on Sunday, or any books that weren’t explicitly Christian. We didn’t sing “secular” songs on Sunday. (Years later when I was dating my future husband, he said, “I don’t understand the need for such a rule. You didn’t just . . . burst into song, did you?” I answered, “Well, yes, we did.”)
In my teenage-hood, I began to try to do whatever fairly easy, listy types of things would make me a better Christian. This included adding more rules to keeping Sunday as a Sabbath Rest day. Thus, I began to question my parents’ allowing us to play badminton or croquet on Sunday, and I refused to participate. I can’t remember what else I added to my list, but that one in itself was enough to cause some family consternation at my priggishness.
All of this was what flashed through my mind that Sunday in 1999 standing in my friend’s kitchen. By then I had obviously eased up on my rules. But that passage in Isaiah still hung over us all, the one that all faithful Sunday-Sabbath-keepers go back to.
I was hit by it again the other day, when I was praying through Isaiah 58 for some abuse survivor friends of mine. The whole chapter is a wonderful, thundering declaration of the justice of God. “Is not this the fast that I have chosen—to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? . . . If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday.”
Wonderful descriptions of justice and mercy, of truth and love. Then we come to the passage in question that hovers over the head:
“If you turn away your foot from . . . doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, not finding your own pleasure, not speaking your own words, then you will delight yourself in the Lord, and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.”
This has translated into long lists of rules, so that Sunday can become exhausting for the old and boring for the young and dreaded by many.
I’m a New Covenant Christian. So I read the Old Covenant through my New Covenant glasses. This passage in Isaiah screams Hebrews 4. The creation of the seventh day (the original day of rest), the entering into Canaan, and some elusive future day of rest referred to by David, are all expressed with urgency by the writer of Hebrews 4. You’d better enter THAT rest! he cried out. Or you’ll fall according to the same example of disobedience! And the very next verse is the famous one about the Living Word of God piercing, dividing, discerning, exposing, laying naked. It’s really a little scary.
This is way, way beyond which set of rules you’re going to adopt for keeping Sunday holy and separate.
So what is THAT Sabbath Rest? Do you see that it’s really urgent for us to understand this?
The thing is, that it’s a Rest to be lived in every single day of the week, all year long, for your whole entire life.
Because the Rest is Jesus.
“He who has entered His rest has ceased from his works as God did from His [on the seventh day].”
There is no more list externally imposed. There is no more self-based effort to please a God who seems to be perpetually displeased. In this Rest, there is only joyful empowerment to do what God has called us to do, with a naturally-understood description of what that life should look like. (More about that here.) If you continue steadfast in faith, “you have become partakers of Christ.”
Then, with this new “entering in,” every day is God’s holy day. Every day is a day when His pleasure is my pleasure. Every day is a day of Sabbath rest in Jesus, energized, like Paul, who talked a lot about experiencing the dynamic empowering energy of the Holy Spirit.
No list of rules is going to “cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.” Only Jesus will do that. Enter in, and find all your rest in Him.
Paradoxically, you’ll be working harder than ever. But your work will be energized with joyful Holy Spirit power, doing the work that He Himself, Christ in You, has called you—you specifically!—to do. This is a life of joy.